Why the techno-optimists are wrong

Belief in “the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” as F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, is a characteristic American trait. But hope in a better future is not uniquely American, even if it has long been a more potent secular faith in the United States than elsewhere. The belief has older roots. It was the product of a shift in the temporal location of the golden age from a long-lost past to an ever-brighter future.

That shift was conceived and realized with the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution. As human beings gained ever-greater control of the forces of nature and their economies became ever more productive, they started to hope for lives more like those of the gods their ancestors had imagined.

People might never be immortal, but their lives would be healthy and long. People might never move instantaneously, but they could transport themselves and their possessions swiftly and cheaply across great distances. People might never live on Mount Olympus, but they could enjoy a temperate climate, 24-hour lighting, and abundant food. People might never speak mind to mind, but they could communicate with as many others as they desired, anywhere on the planet. People might never enjoy infinite wisdom, but they could gain immediate access to the knowledge accumulated over millennia.

All of this has already happened in the world’s richest countries. It is what the people of the rest of the world hope still to enjoy.

Is a yet more orgiastic future beckoning? Today’s Gatsbys have no doubt that the answer is yes: humanity stands on the verge of breakthroughs in information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries. Human beings will be able to live still more like gods because they are about to create machines like gods: not just strong and swift but also supremely intelligent and even self-creating.

Yet this is the optimistic version. Since Mary Shelley created the cautionary tale of Frankenstein, the idea of intelligent machines has also frightened us. Many duly point to great dangers, including those of soaring unemployment and inequality.

But are we likely to experience such profound changes over the next decade or two? The answer is no.

Lees dit geweldig lekker dwarse artikel van Martin Wolf verder op Foreign Affairs