Technology and the opiate of magical thinking

I’d like to start off this post with a little thought experiment: specifically, what answer will we be expecting when we get to ask the AI’s for the “cure for cancer?”

If we simply pose the question as written, we might get this obvious response – in all caps, of course, because that’s how omniscient machines are supposed to talk – “THE CURE IS TO STOP EXPOSING HUMANS TO CANCER CAUSING CHEMICALS.”

However, this doesn’t really solve the problem, because what do we then do about that multi-billion dollar cancer causing enterprise we call the Chemical Industrial Complex? Certainly, it will (and has) fight such a solution tooth and nail. So, maybe we need to rephrase the question:

“Uh, please excuse us, Omniscient Ones, but what we really want is a cure that will make us resistant to cancer.”

But, even that is not precise enough, because how will such a cure affect the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry? Certainly, it will fight such a cure tooth and nail, as it would obviously have a highly negative effect on the industry’s very profitable cancer treatment programs. So, perhaps the real question is:

“Can you provide us with a reoccurring treatment that will make us resistant to cancer?”

And that is the solution we will most likely get, because who do you think is funding the research to answer this question? Which loops me back around to the question of technology and magical thinking. The techno utopians are always shopping technology as the solution to all our problems, but whose problems are being solved? Well, I suspect the ones who can afford to pay for the answers.

The problem with solutions, technological or otherwise, is that everyone has an agenda. Contrary to popular opinion, governments, corporations, and the “1-percenters” are not benevolent agents working altruistically to solve the problems of mankind. They are focused on solving the specific problems related to them, and the solutions technology provides are for the answers they are paying for, even if they are being sold otherwise. Thus, the Mercury and Gemini space programs were publically funded projects to develop better missile systems, sold under the guise of space exploration; the iPhone is not a phone, but a delivery platform for iTunes content; the pharmaceutical industry spends literally billions of dollars developing $10,000-per-month for cancer treatments instead of searching for a true cure for cancer, because that is where the profit lies; and Sergey Brin’s quest to build robot driven cars is probably more about providing people extra time to spend on Google in the morning while being chauffeured to work, than some altruistic vision to save lives.

Note that I am not espousing Luddism here. Technological advancement has enormous potential for positive, life altering change. But the magical thinking with regards to technology is that it cannot fail – it can only be failed. And as long as we continue to place the process of technological advance in the hands of narrow economic interests, it will always be failed.

So, when you find yourself being exposed to the rah-rah cheerleading of the techno utopians, and how technology is going to magically create this wonderful paradise by solving all our ills, balance that against the reality of who is paying the bills. Because I can almost guarantee that their agenda for utopia is much different than yours.


Filed under Robots, Snake Oil, Technology

6 responses to “Technology and the opiate of magical thinking

  1. I think that the Internet generally put a crimp in the delimma you describe. Crowdsourcing science and other developments like the X-prize have changed the paradigm a bit. Then there is Google with “don’t be evil” which may or may not be true of Google in various areas though generally they have forced big data on us and changed the Internet experience which changes education and knowledge… interesting times.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I agree that crowdsourcing is an interesting way of financing projects, but only at the relatively small scale level. Not to say that important work is not being crowdsourced, but that it is unlikely to fund something on the scale as finding a cure for cancer.

      The x-prize is something on a larger, focused scale. We definitely need more of these!

      • Well, if a problem can be reduced to millions of iterations of comparing something, or processing the information to some other form in small chunks… well, crowd sourcing works. Arm chair astronomers are crowd sourcing image analysis etc. It has great potential.

  2. “Technological advancement has enormous potential for positive, life altering change. But the magical thinking with regards to technology is that it cannot fail”

    Technology fails over and over again. Yet, as you say, there is a sort of fairy tale story surrounding its ability not to. When our computers crash…or at least when mine does…I am beaten about the head and face with the reality that technology is merely another or different kind of drama. And then I am really mad. Because its just supposed to work.

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