This foolish, callous world of ours is en route to hell. Or this is the best the world has ever been.
One of the stranger features of our time is the jousting and mingling of these two rhetorics. You hear them so often that you can forget how extreme and contradictory they are.
Europe and the United States as we know them — and, ergo, civilization itself — are toast. The ecosystem is falling apart. Your texting children will grow up illiterate. China’s sky will soon be rotating among 50 shades of black. The middle class? Finished.
Oh, but: We live in glorious new times in which an illiterate, malnourished African child can text-message her way to democracy; upload her version of the “Harlem Shake” to YouTube on that smartphone she hopefully owns and become a viral star; and perhaps even avail of that 3-D printer in her refugee camp and finally make those toys her parents never could buy her.
Each of these rhetorics must be taken with a truckload of salt. But it is true that this is simultaneously a time of real fecundity and real withering, of astonishing innovation and unbelievable breakdown, of great gains that so often fail to make ordinary lives less grinding and bleak.
To spend a few days ricocheting between these rhetorics, attend the annual TED conference — it stands for technology, entertainment and design — which this year served up a heady stew of claims that the world either is going to the dogs or is awesome squared.
It began, aptly enough, with a debate between two men about whether human progress was over or perhaps just getting started. The scary thing was, both made a compelling case.
Robert J. Gordon, an economist, depressed everyone with a “progress is over” sermon. His bottom line: The kinds of things we innovate and celebrate today, like apps and thinner phones, cannot compete with previous generations of innovations for their capacity to improve human living: the discovery of electric lights, for instance, or of refrigeration, elevators, cars and washing machines. Thus, genuine progress is leveling off and, with it, growth.
Erik Brynjolfsson quickly marched onstage to inform us that Mr. Gordon was all wrong. The next wave of inventions will make the last waves seem childish. It’s a new dawn in which we can measure almost anything, in which ideas can be shared for free, in which people around the world can self-organize and solve problems without the help of big institutions. Progress!
If you came suspecting that this technology thing was ruining the world, there was much fodder for you. A technologist named Danny Hillis warned that the very smart Internet was never designed to power very dumb things like your light bulbs and your thermostats — and that using it for more and more such things exposes us all to the risk of catastrophic system meltdowns. Others argued that technology was privileging headwork over other labor and would leave all but the most brilliant behind. That the new corporate-built, technology-greased cities we are creating will lack soul. That we’re all going to be badly hacked unless we wake up. That technology once seemed poised to take us all on regular moon trips, and instead all we got was Facebook.
And then, just as you were about to get sad, you would hear that 3-D printing is going to revolutionize the revolution, turning all of us into makers. That blind people can now get shoes installed with GPS and a haptic feedback system, so that their shoes can navigate them. That there is a new way to create credit scores for the world’s millions of unbanked people. That robots, rather than displacing workers, will soon work alongside them, turning humans into robot trainers. That paper posters can somehow be turned into electronic touch screens. That someone has figured out how to make cheap, Ikea-like kits for the assembly of whole houses. That we’re at the outset of a new solar energy boom. That underground fission will make solar seem like amateur hour.
Sometimes, the utopians at TED grow so removed from the doom crowd that they propose solutions to problems that aren’t really problems, like how the Internet is presently confined to human beings.
“We should not restrict this network to one species,” Vinton G. Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Internet, said in introducing a new initiative — the Interspecies Internet.
And so it went. An age of “technological unemployment” awaits, but — Bono informed us — extreme poverty could soon be behind us. The music business as we know it could end, but so could global health pandemics. Corrupt money is strangling U.S. politics, but never fear: We can bypass the U.S. government, raise virtuous money and incent states to make reforms with private, rather than public, cash.
What makes this time of ours so peculiar is that both of these visions contain truth. It’s hard to think of a comparable period in history in which the rhetoric of end times so effortlessly danced with the rhetoric of an intoxicating dawn. So which will it be?
Source: The New York Times, 8 March 2013