Musings from my desk

Techno Optimism Is Not the Opposite of Techno Realism

2023-04-27 12:45:35 -0500 CDT

I was reading a sample of The Economic Superorganism this morning via Libby, and came across this passage:

The techno-optimistic economic narrative tells the story of unbounded substitutability for anything before we run out of it in the faith we can invent our way to a solution for any and all economic, social, and environmental problems. The techno-realistic economic narrative is the story of biological and physical constraints, and while it agrees we are inventive, it states we can neither break the laws of nature nor access an infinite supply of natural resources.

Of course, Carey King is not the inventor of these terms - the term “Techno-Optimism” has been around for a while, and the attitude which it describes has probably been around even longer1. King is also not the first to suggest that Techno-Realism is the opposite of Techno-Optimism. In fact, the terms “optimist” and “realist” are frequently used together to suggest two ends of a spectrum, in a general sense.

I think this view is misguided. The core philosophy that Techno-Optimism describes is actually one of faith - a key factor that King correctly identifies. Techno-Optimism is defined by a faith that for any ill, we will always be able to find a technological cure. It also happens to be an optimistic outlook on the world, but the optimism is due to unbounded faith in technology, rather than being based on a positive assessment of reality. In contrast, Techno-Realism bases its outlook on actual events that have occurred in the world, and physical laws such as thermodynamics.

It is entirely possible to be an optimistic Techno-Realist. There is nothing contradictory about this stance, it simply requires one to have an optimistic outlook on the world, while simultaneously acknowledging real events that have occurred around us. Similarly, pessimistic Techno-Realism is a completely valid outlook, as long as your pessimism is based in reality and historical facts. Techno-Optimism, by contrast, stakes its claims in faith of an unknown future. What if we instead called it by its more accurate name: Techno-Faithfulness?

If we used accurate terminology, we would see that it is possible to be both an optimistic Techno-Faithful as well as a pessimistic Techno-Faithful. There is a suitable analogy to be found in religious faith: just as there are religious followers who suggest that the apocalypse is coming and the world will soon end, there are simultaneously religious followers who believe that we will all be saved by the divine powers described by their faith. The term “Techno-Optimism” exclusively refers to optimistic Techno-Faithfulness. The problem with this terminology is not the elision of words but rather the inaccurate portrayal of the stance. Suggesting that Techno-Optimism is anything other than a faith-based approach to technology is inaccurate. Similarly, suggesting that Techno-Realists are unwilling to go along with a happy vision of the future is a disservice to the viewpoint of Techno-Realism.

Techno-Realism is a fact-based view of the interaction between technology and social wellness, based on historical precedent and physical laws. “Techno-Optimism” is a faithful belief that technology will fix any problem we encounter, regardless of the historical precedent for such a belief. The term “Techno-Optimism” is not accurate to represent an opposite view of Techno-Realism. I therefore propose that henceforth we refer to this viewpoint as Techno-Faithfulness.

1ChatGPT suggested that the term Techno-Optimism first appeared in The Challenge Of Abundance (pg. 44) by Robert Theobald, but I couldn’t verify the claim so I am assuming it is lying to me.