The Stories We Tell About Technology

Michael Solana wants to put an end to dystopian science-fiction. Enough already. No more bleak, post-apocalyptic stories; certainly no more of these stories in which technology is somehow to blame for the disaster. Why? Because, as the title of his Wired opinion piece puts it, “It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.”

This is as good a time as any to drop the word flabbergasted–I’m genuinely flabbergasted. Granted, there’s a good chance Solana didn’t pick his title, but, in this case, it pretty much sums up the substance of his view. Solana really seems to believe that our cultural imagination is driven by Luddite fears. He really seems to believe that stories which present technology as a positive force in human affairs can be … ready for this … “subversive” and “daring.”

Like Alan Jacobs, I find myself wondering what world Solana inhabits:

“I have to say, it’s pretty cool to get a report from such a peculiar land. Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools. So, you know, comparative anthropology FTW.”

Indeed.

Interestingly, I found myself wondering much the same thing when I read Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s post, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral” (more thoughts on which are eventually forthcoming). Gobry and Thiel, in the talk that inspired Gobry’s post, both lament what they seem to regard as an oppressive pessimism regarding technology and innovation that supposedly dominates our cultural imagination. To listen to Thiel, you would think that Silicon Valley was an island of hope and pragmatism in an ocean of fear and doubt. Gobry is particularly concerned with the prevalent pessimism about technology that he observes among Christians. Maybe French Catholics have a proclivity toward Luddism, I don’t know; but on this side of the Atlantic I see no great difference between Christians and non-Christians with regards to their attitudes toward technology. On the whole, they are generally enthusiastically positive.

In fact, I think media scholar Henry Jenkins is much closer to the mark, regarding communication technology at least, when he writes,

“Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

I don’t want to be to snarky about this, but, honestly, I’m not entirely sure where you have to stand to get this kind of perspective on society. True, there have always been skeptics–Thoreaus, Postmans, Elluls, Toflers–but, historically, they have been the counterpoint, not the main theme. They have always been marginal figures, and they have never managed to stem the dominant tide of techno-enthusiasm. (Granted, the case may be different in Europe, where, for example, nuclear energy has been in retreat since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.) Perhaps we simply prefer to see ourselves, regardless of the actual state of affairs, as an embattled minority. And perhaps, I’m guilty of this, too.

In any case, the only evidence that Solana submits in defense of his claim that “people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been” is a decidedly non-scientific survey of attitudes toward artificial intelligence. You can follow the link to read the details, but basically the survey offered three choices:

1. Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening
2. No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening
3. I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology

Here are the results:

1. 16.7%
2. 27.1%
3. 56.3%

Set aside any methodological issues; the results as reported simply don’t support Solana’s assertion that “the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence.” Given the phrasing of the third choice, selecting it hardly suggests irrational fear. In fact, it may just reflect a modicum of common sense. By contrast, consider this recent Pew Research survey which found that “When asked for their general views on technology’s long-term impact on life in the future, technological optimists outnumber pessimists by two-to-one.”

Now, all of this said, Solana’s underlying assumption is worth considering. Human-beings are the sorts of creatures that do make sense of their world by telling stories about it. Stories have the power to shape how we imagine the place of technology in society. Our attitudes toward technology often flow from a larger story we buy into about technology and society.

It’s worth asking ourselves what story frames our thinking about technology. Broadly speaking, there are utopian stories and dystopian stories about technology. Utopian stories tell of a future that gets better and better as a result of techno-scientific progress. Dystopian stories present technology as a source of disaster or societal disintegration. I’d suggest that there are also tragic stories, and that these are not the same as dystopian tales. The paradigmatic techno-tragedy is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a classically tragic tale that recognizes the allure and power of the techno-scientific project, while also grappling with its inherent dangers, dangers which are ultimately a function of the human condition.

Of course, these stories need not be fictional. They might also be stories we tell about our national history or about individuals, such as inventors or entrepreneurs. Moreover, what we want to ultimately consider is not any one story, or even a set of stories, it’s the net effect or the cumulative “story” that becomes part of our tacit understanding of the world.

While it is easy to think of popular stories that frame technology as a source of trouble, it seems to me that the still-dominant narrative frames technology as a source of hope. When Solana writes, in the pages of Wired mind you, that “Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it,” it seems to me that he is preaching to one massive choir.

With more time, I’d argue that our story about technology is not just a story. “Technology” is another name for the dominant myth of our time. This myth gives shape to our imagination. It sets the boundaries of the possible. It conditions our moral judgment. It is the arbiter of truth and the source of our hope. Is there a little anxiety wrapped up in all of this, even among the true believers? Sure. But as scholars of religion have long observed, what we hold sacred tends to invoke both wonder and fear.

So, what’s the view from where you stand? What do you perceive as the dominant cultural attitude toward technology? Have the Luddites really won the day, have I somehow missed this startling development?