When it comes to visions of the way that technology will intersect with society in the future, Silicon Valley has a near monopoly. It’s been nearly 30 years since Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron published the essay The Californian Ideology, which they say naturalized and gave a “technological proof to a libertarian political philosophy, and therefore foreclosing on alternative futures,” a “faith” that is “made possible through a nearly universal belief in technological determinism.”
Now, the economic power of Silicon Valley has left its billionaire class fairly certain it is above reproach, unchecked and unchallenged, even as some of the biggest firms spawned there are locked in a staring contest with governments in Washington, Brussels and beyond.
To talk more about the ways in which Silicon Valley elites have captured so much of what people define as “progress” and the pronouncements of some individuals who make wild promises about the abundant future that technology will supposedly deliver, I called up Dave Karpf, who has been thinking about these issues for some time. He is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, published in May 2012 by Oxford University Press, and Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy published in December 2016 by Oxford University Press.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
Dave, just for the benefit of any of my listeners that may not know you, can you give just brief background on your line of research and your interest areas?
I come out of political organizing. I spent about 15 years in various roles with the Sierra Club, the big environmental organization. That was back in the late 1990s through the early ’00s. I was on the board from 2004 to 2010. That’s also when I was in graduate school.
That means that I started graduate school as the Howard Dean Campaign was going on. I got intensely interested in how the internet was changing political organizing and organizations. There were groups like MoveOn.org that clearly were mattering an awful lot and doing similar things to the Sierra Club, but with new media and new technologies.
That became the main focus of my research for the first decade in the field. I wrote a book in 2012 called The MoveOn Effect, which is about the new generation of political advocacy organizations. Basically, how are groups like MoveOn.org different from the Sierra Club and how are they similar. This month actually is a decade since that book came out, so I could give it a reread.
In 2016, I had a follow-up book, Analytic Activism, which was looking at how this new generation of organizations use analytics and digital listening to come up with new tactics and strategies and engage the members in new ways, and what that all amounts to. That book came out a month after Trump was elected.
With academic publishing, I finished writing it in what? Late 2015. When it came out, we were living in a very different world than I had been writing for. That led me to spend a lot of time thinking both about Trump and Trumpism, but also on the broader scale how the internet and politics are changing. That led to a project that I started in 2018, where I decided to take a step back.
I read the entire back catalog of Wired Magazine, 25 years of it cover to cover over the course of just about six weeks, in order to get a sense of the history of the digital future. What has our sense been of how the internet was changing society as it was coming, and what parts of that really change and what parts stayed the same.
There’s an image of the digital horizon. The way the world is going to look differently five or 10 years from now. Wherever you are in time, if it’s 1997 or 2007, there are some elements of what we think the world’s going to be in five years that are always the same. That includes, apparently, Elon Musk has promised us self-driving cars in the next five years and Mars in 10 years for over a decade now.
I’ve been doing that project for a while now and looking more broadly at the history of the digital future. Though, I’d say if your listeners know my name at all, it’s actually probably because that one time that I made fun of Bret Stephens. There was that, too; that wasn’t research that was just fun, but it’s what I’m best known for.
A brief moment of Twitter infamy. May you have another.
I want to talk about the future, how we think about the future. You recently gave a talk about this issue. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. About the ways in which Silicon Valley has colonized our vision of the future. The way we think about what’s next, not just technologically, but how we may organize ourselves politically. What type of society we want. What did you learn from that review of Wired and where did it leave you on the question of the future?
For me, one of the really interesting things in the History of the Digital Future Project is the way it’s gotten weirdly current. When I was doing that in 2018, it was fascinating seeing the rate of digital change in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Then what I’ve called the slowdown of internet time in the 2010s.
If you go from 1993 to 1996, it’s a fundamentally different internet. 1996 to 1999 to 2000, you take three or five-year slices. The way that we access the internet, what we do on the internet, what we do with it, how it affects the rest of society, who the big companies are, all of that is in constant flux in the ’90s, in the 2000s. That’s being described back then as ‘internet time.’
It’s related to this concept called Moore’s Law, which was from Gordon Moore in 1965, saying the number of transistors you’ll fit on a Silicon chip is going to double every two years and the price will cut in half. There’s almost this religious confidence amongst Silicon Valley evangelists that the pace of internet time makes the internet different from everything else in society.
It’s transforming society, it’s been transforming the economy. For 10, 15 years, there’s a sense in which they’re right. They’re not entirely right. There’s a political project there because when they’re saying internet time is different what they’re also saying is don’t regulate us because you don’t understand us. How could you, we’re changing too fast.
There is also an empirical sense where if you’re setting the policies for the internet in 2001 you’re setting policies that aren’t going to make sense. Once Wi-Fi is becoming a real thing in ’03 and ’04, the pace of change is just really fast, but roughly after the iPhone, let’s go from 2008 to 2010, what you see in the magazine is they keep making the same pronouncements about this oncoming radical change to the digital future, but they don’t arrive.
What we’ve seen over the past decade, partially because you get the rise of these big tech monopolies, where instead of Facebook getting displaced, Facebook just buys up the competitor. That’s part of what’s going on there. Some of it is also just after the iPhone, we haven’t really had major breakthrough devices that end up mattering at the mass consumer level.
The big predictions that are going on if you’re looking at 2011, Bitcoin has already been around for a couple years, they’re talking about how this might be the future. Now, it’s 2022 and they’re saying this might be the future. They’re talking about 3D printing. 3D printing still seems really cool, but it’s been over a decade and it’s still this niche activity.
Wearable devices are another one. Remember Google Glass? We keep on getting more wearables that are supposed to do that. None of it has paid off the way it was in the decades previously. When I was first doing the project that slowdown of internet times seemed to me to be the most pertinent thing going on that I didn’t expect.
That was 2018. That’s also midway through the techlash. What’s gotten interesting in the past year is the evangelists and the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have clearly gotten excited about the future again. They have decided that I think what’s largely going on, I don’t think there have been major tech breakthroughs.
I think that if you look at cryptocurrency and blockchain there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in the past couple years. Artificial general intelligence… they’ve hit some benchmarks, but actually the science is fundamentally the same as it’s been. If you look at the metaverse, they’ve been promising breakthroughs in VR and AR since at least 2016.
I don’t think the reason why they’re now talking about the future so much is because some breakthrough has happened that’s going to really matter. I think they’re talking about the future because they’ve gotten real tired of being blamed for the present. Big tech now dominates the economy in a way that it didn’t in the 1990s or the 2000s.
The largest companies and the richest human beings in the world are all technologists. I was reading something yesterday, apparently Elon Musk’s wealth went up tenfold during the pandemic. He had $20 to $30 billion at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, he’s got $220 to $270 billion.
The extent to which big tech now dominates everything means we also socially hold big tech responsible for the present. That’s not fun because the present is dystopia. They’ve gotten excited in a way that’s very reminiscent of the start of Web 2.0, which is 2004-ish. That’s after the dot-com crash when venture capitalists are just not seeing a lot to be excited about.
Web 2.0 is looking at Wikipedia, it’s looking at the blogosphere by ’05, it’s looking at YouTube and it’s saying, “There’s new things happening here. Let’s get excited about. Let’s get excited about the future again.” They’ve been trying over the past year to do that. They sound very similar to the Web 1.0 era like the start of the dot-com era with Netscape in ’95.
They’re behaving a lot like Web 2.0 circa 2005, but there’s no real tech breakthroughs. The talk that I gave recently, and it’s going to be a piece that I’m writing as well about these three visions of the future that I’m seeing Silicon Valley constantly orbiting around, there’s a vision of the future that says, “It’s going to be the metaverse.”
This is Mark Zuckerberg, the person saying it most loudly. I wrote a piece for Wired last summer essentially arguing that the metaverse has a problem, and it’s a user end problem. They’re building this vision of augmented reality or an immersive technology that users don’t seem to want. They’ve been promising breakthroughs in VR gaming for years and years now.
The biggest VR game is basically Guitar Hero, but in VR. I’ve played it once and it’s pretty cool, but you get bored with it and it still no ordinary as big as Guitar Hero or Rock Band were a bunch of years ago. VR gaming is real fun for the people who are into it, but it has been nowhere near as powerful. It’s still not the most popular games.
It seems to me that VR and the metaverse have what I call a ‘field of dreams’ fallacy problem that they’re assuming if they build it that people will show up. They’ve been doing that for a long time. People keep on buying these headsets and then putting them down because they don’t particularly want it.
That’s a vision of the tech future that I don’t really think is going to happen the same when we look at cryptocurrency blockchain.
Somebody might come back to you and say, “Well, what about games?” The 3D environments that people are engaging in on the game side of it. Of course, we’ve never seen more people participate in things like Fortnite and other 3D environments that people are engaged in.
Fortnite mostly is only a little bit 3D, it’s mostly not 3D. The pushback I would give on games right now, they are spending billions and billions to make millions. At some point we need to judge virtual reality and augmented reality based not on their potential, but on their performance.
This has been the big promise since at least 2016 that they have thought that Oculus, which is how Meta was going to transform gaming. So far, what we’re seeing is gaming still a real niche product. The most popular games are not VR games, even though VR gaming has been around for a long time.
Now, I think the big VR supporters, certainly when that piece came out in Wired last summer, the big VR supporters said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s still too soon.” They could be right. It’s entirely possible that a decade from now, I’m going to look like an idiot for making fun of VR and the metaverse.
I think it’s more likely than not that in studying this history of the digital future, I got to look at VR in the ’80s and the ’90s. I’ll tell you the way that they’re talking about VR in the metaverse now sounds exactly like it did then.
The original pioneers like Jaron Lanier and others.
Right. We’ve heard this story before and going back to internet time, we’ve been hearing this story from them since at least 2016. At some point I think we have to ask the question: is VR and the metaverse not catching on because the headsets aren’t quite fancy enough, or polished enough or good enough yet?
The games aren’t good enough or because people just don’t really want it? I think we have to at least consider the possibility that people don’t really want it. The other thing I want to point out here right now, there is this rush to build the metaverse and companies are sparing no cost to do that.
They are throwing money and investment and energy and attention into building that vision of the digital future. I want us to hold that in our minds because there are these two other visions of the digital future. There’s a vision of the digital future, which is not just artificial intelligence, but artificial general intelligence.
A company called OpenAI has been the biggest promoter of this and a billionaire named Sam Altman, who’s the head of OpenAI and has been pushing it for a long time. Sam Altman, if you read his tweets or you read the essays that he’s put out, he sounds like a 1990s techno optimist just ripped from time and placed with us today.
OpenAI has come out with this large language model GPT-3, which you can produce text that is hard to differentiate from what a human would write. They recently came out with a visual version of that called DALL-E 2, where if you give it a description… I saw somebody on Twitter yesterday was showing off. They fed the description, ‘Kermit the Frog, but in the Matrix’ and it can render a picture that looks like Kermit the Frog in the Matrix. On the one hand, it’s pretty cool. That’s a fun toy to play with. On the other hand, those large language models are fantastically energy expensive. We’re basically burning down our rainforest so that we can have a computer do our drawing for us.
What Sam Altman will tell us is that as we get closer and closer to artificial general intelligence, that’s going to usher in this era of economic abundance that changes life for all humanity. There again, he sounds exactly like the 1990s techno-optimists, who were also completely wrong.
Let’s also hold that second vision of the technological future in mind, this artificial general intelligence with large language models and absurd processing power. That then brings us to cryptocurrency, which includes Bitcoin, Web 3.0, and Ethereum. Bitcoin consumes more energy than Ethereum does.
It’s all insanely wasteful from an energy perspective. At its core, blockchain is distributed databases. We are taking control over databases, spreading it over computers to make it less efficient, so you don’t need to trust one institution. What that means is whether you do it the Bitcoin way, which is burning more energy than small countries, you do it through Ethereum or other tools that can be more efficient, but still really wasteful. That’s a vision of the future, which says in order to get around the old institutions and replace them with new institutions. They’re not actually getting rid of banks, they’re hoping to replace the old banks with new banks that are run on crypto, on blockchain.
In order to do that, they’re also going to just burn processing power. If you take those three visions of the future, the thing that stands out to me is there’s a fourth vision of the future, which is one that takes seriously the climate crisis. We are being told by the IPCC that we have a decade or less to stave off catastrophic climate change.
I’m an old environmentalist. I come out of the Sierra Club. We needed to make a lot more headway a decade ago than we have. While we’re seeing real advances in solar in some other markets, the technology is not advancing fast enough. The politics is not advancing fast enough. The social changes that need to occur just aren’t happening.
What stands out to me is that there’s a version of Silicon Valley, there’s tiny segments of Silicon Valley that are freaked out enough by the climate crisis that they are asking the question, “What would an internet that helps us to adapt look like?” Those are tiny pockets. Instead, the three big visions that we see coming out of Silicon Valley are all based in this pretend fantasy landscape where we still have all the limitless energy to burn.
AGI is the version of those three futures that I think has the most legitimate claim to some real breakthroughs, but they are also looking at the climate crisis and saying, “Why don’t we burn down a rainforest so we can have a computer do the drawing for us?” The metaverse is right now this race to see who can dominate the next version of the internet.
That race is not going to be won by the company that manages to be most energy efficient in its work. They are saying, “What’s the next advertising landscape? Let’s be the Google or the Facebook/Meta of that.” Blockchain is a solution in search of a problem, and the one problem that’s definitely not trying to solve is climate change.
As somebody who’s studied the past 25 now almost 30 years of digital history, it’s not just that we’ve had this slow down over the past 10 years that I find the current technologists seeming pretending it’s not there. All of them are claiming that we are still living in internet time and everything’s moving faster.
My question to them is have you paid attention in the past decade or not because it’s not happening anymore. The other thing is it strikes me that the current wave of internet futurists and internet evangelists, aren’t paying real attention to the things they got wrong last time. The original crop of them, and the Web 2.0 crop of them, were so confident that they were going to solve the world’s problems through technology, so long as government and society just trusted them to be the heroes of the story.
They left out environmental collapse. They left out political infighting. They left out actually dealing with the Nazis on social media, and it turns out that those problems get worse unless you deal with them.
The thing that I’ve gotten more and more concerned about as somebody who took the long view and has ended up back here today is it seems like they are actively misremembering the lessons of the past, which means that they’re going to repeat those mistakes when we don’t have the time to repeat them.
Part of that is, I assume, just the logic of capital. You don’t want to paint a negative picture of the future because that’s not good for investors, not good for people who are seeking a return primarily. We’ve talked on this podcast, my listeners of course know Sam Altman, about his pronouncements on the idea of abundance and how close that might be.
I had Gary Marcus on recently and talked about some of the questions that you’re bringing up around AI and OpenAI, and some of the large language models and the limitations to that approach to artificial intelligence. The reason I could have resonated with some of the signals that I saw bouncing off your Twitter feed around this particular theme. Earlier this year, I went to a conference in Miami hosted around Miami Tech Week. Miami has gone nuts for cryptocurrency. I remember this one particular individual saying, ‘The decade ahead is going to be wildly disruptive. You think the last decade was disruptive, all we did was disrupt advertising. We’re going to disrupt everything and no government can stop us and it’s going to be extraordinary.’
I found myself standing in the back of the auditorium thinking actually, this city will be underwater. We are more likely to see climate crises, refugee crises, movement of people we’ve never seen before, resource wars. Just extraordinary challenges over the next decade.
It’s not just the IPCC- I feel like intelligence agencies are telling us this. Various government assessments of potential catastrophe. I don’t know. I think like you, I find these pronouncements on potential abundance or somehow ushering in a new and more prosperous set of human institutions that will replace the failed institutions of the present. I find it all totally preposterous.
Yes, and the thing that because this Wired project I now keep getting hung up on is when that person in Miami says, “You think the past decade was disruptive.” I want to jump up and down shouting, “No, I don’t look at the data.” Now, part of this is because in 2012 I very much believed that based on what I had seen from 1993 through 2012.
I wrote a piece in 2012 called ‘social science research methods in internet time.’ I tried to lay out for other academics the methodological challenge of studying the internet when the internet keeps changing. One thing that I said in there was the internet of 2012 is radically different from the internet of 2007 or 2002.
The same will surely be true of the internet of 2022. This past year I’ve been looking back at that thinking the internet of 2012 was what? Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, which is owned by Google, and Amazon. The internet of 2022 is all of those plus TikTok.
If we could go back in time– I wrote about this for Substack think back in January, February– if we could go back in time to 2012 and tell our 2012 selves, “Here’s how little the internet has changed.” I know I would’ve found it shocking that so little had changed. If we had followed that up by saying, “By the way, Donald Trump is somehow going to be president and it’s going to go exactly as bad as you fear. The supporters are going to try to overthrow the government, none of the people who coordinated are going to face any blow back, because Republicans are just going to support it.” I would’ve said, “You lost me at Donald Trump getting an elected president. Come on, what are you talking about?” Internet time is slowing down while our political institution’s political time that’s where we’re seeing these radical changes now.
Not because of the internet accelerated by digital technologies, but not because of them. Really for a technologist today to say, you think the last decade was disruptive. No I don’t. And if he thinks that, then what that means is he’s enough of an abundance and Moore’s Law ideologue that he’s not even paying attention to the past decade of life on the internet. It’s not.
That raises the question of what’s the next decade going to be? If we’re not members of the church of Moore’s law, if we’re not starting out saying, “Of course, we’ll keep on getting radically different and disrupting everything” Instead we say, “Look at the past decade think about the next decade.” That’s when we start need to be thinking not about disruption, but about fragility.
The old disruptors, you look back at Web 2.0 ,either became monopolists or we found out how fragile they were. We’ve also been finding out just how fragile the existing institutions are. Like what little holds up democracy. Looking for the next decade, I’m not sure we have free and fair elections in the United States.
I will be pleasantly surprised if we manage any national or global serious response to climate change. Hell, we’re a country that over the past decade hasn’t been able to get guns out of elementary schools. How are we going to deal with climate when that’s actually about getting ourselves off of the carbon economy? We don’t do those big successful things anymore.
I think we need to prepare ourselves for the notion that if we don’t plan for it and try to respond collectively, that things will be similar but worse in a decade because we’ll be responding to crumbling things as opposed to still getting to run along the path of internet time making things different and new, and everyone can get rich off of it if they can just get it on the ground floor. I think empirically that time has just passed us.
You use a phrase, ‘tech accelerationists.’ I think of these people as tech accelerationist, I would also say there’s a model of venture accelerationist that we see now in Silicon Valley. I’m maybe slightly out over my skis here talking about this, but part of the sense I’m getting from some of the individuals, particularly those who are so enthusiastic about cryptocurrency.
Also, the Peter Thiel world of things is this sense that government, full stop, has stood in the way of the progress that we need to make on technology in order to deliver this realm of abundance. The best thing we can do is take down those institutions, destroy, undermine any impediment or obstacle institution that might stand in the way.
We need more capital allocated to these big problems. In some ways they’re answering your question. They know that there’s big issues, big things that we have to do to solve for the future. Their sense is everyone else needs to get out of the way and allow the individuals who know how to usher in innovation and tech to lead. ‘If you don’t do that, we’ll take that power.’ You see this Trumpian populism and the venture accelerationism flowing in these tributaries, flowing into the same river of activity at this point.
I want to separate out tech accelerationism and venture accelerationism. The thing that I’m unsure about with venture, genuinely unsure, keep on reading and scratching my head around it, is how much they believe their own bullshit. The venture capitalists who valued a Clubhouse at $4 billion, from my perspective, those are total idiots.
I would assume that they lost all their money and no one takes them seriously anymore. It’s possible that was a bad bet, but actually somehow they got their money back out of it. I’ve read in a bunch of places that the thing that venture capital likes so much about cryptocurrency and ICOs is that they can make their bets and make their money back right away.
There’s really no risk to them, there’s only potential reward. They’ve turned enough of the economy into a weird casino where they’re the house that it’s not clear to me how much they are genuinely espousing a philosophy of here’s how the world works and how much they’re just trying to get more suckers into the casino.
That’s not a defense of them so much as I don’t quite know what to make of their language there. Whereas, the tech accelerationist language mostly reads more pure to me. Now, it reads pure to me in the sense of these are a bunch of rich entrepreneurs, evangelists, and technologists who are trying to explain why the power they have is justified and should increase.
I think that in their story of self, or why do they deserve to be the moral victors of the universe, I think they genuinely believe it’s because of the church of Moore’s law, because of tech accelerationism, because they are the ones who are marshaling society into some big new future.
That’s to say when Sam Altman is going on about that stuff, I think we need to take him both seriously and pretty literally. When venture capital is explaining why X is the best bet and is undervalued right now, I think they might be bullshitting because claiming that something is undervalued or is going to be the future is a good way to prop it up.
Again, I’m reading The Contrarian, biography of Peter Thiel right now, and an awful lot of his successes came through carnival antics. Same is true for Elon Musk. Same is true for a lot of them, of convincing people that something is real so that they can get the money to make it real. Amongst the tech accelerationists again, this goes back there’s such a deep through line of this to ’90s Wired.
If you read the first issue Wired Magazine, where Louis Rossetto proclaimed that we were in the midst of the ‘Bengali typhoon’ and it was going to be the biggest change since the intervention of fire. He also lays out in that a pretty simple map of who he thinks the heroes and the villains are.
He says that the entrepreneurs and the engineers, those are the heroes who are building a modern society. The people who are staying in the way are the government bureaucrats. That’s this guy who read Ayn Rand and shaped his world view through that. Didn’t think much harder beyond that way of seeing the world, which I think is pretty true of Rossetto from what I’ve read of him.
I think it’s true of an awful lot of the ’90s technologists and also true of a lot of that crowd today. There is something very appealing of the Ayn Rand, the builders are the ones who are creating the better world. The government and the incumbent institutions are the ones who are the way. You are the heroes you are justified.
It’s a very simple moral story in which a bunch of rich Silicon Valley people also get to be the heroes and never blamed for anything. I think the fact that they’ve acquired so much capital leads to this self-reinforcing dynamic of we got to explain why it’s right that I’m a billionaire. Why it’s right for nobody to hold me accountable for anything that I got wrong or lied about along the way.
My basic answer to this is like, “Let’s have a wealth tax and functioning regulatory state. Give me a magic wand and I want those two things.” Lacking that magic wand what I can mostly do is write strong critiques of them and point out that your performance our actual recent history doesn’t live up to any your claims. That also means we should be pretty skeptical of them this time too.
Perhaps impervious at this point. What I wonder too as well- I focus on policy questions, the extent to which this tech accelerationism has infected the minds of lawmakers, policymakers, even at hearings where purportedly the purpose is to hold tech executives to account, you’ll often find lawmakers on both sides of the aisle starting their questions with first a statement of ‘let’s all remember what great promise the internet has brought to us and what extraordinary things Silicon Valley has done for us before we now launch into a series of pointed questions about things that have gone wrong.’
I don’t know. Do you hold any hope that in the current situation that anybody will be able to hold, I don’t know anybody will be able to pierce the Californian ideology?
A very little.
Dave, it’s everywhere. It’s in every culture, every part of the planet, everyone wants to have their own Silicon Valley. Everyone wants Silicon Valley style venture capital. Everyone wants clusters. Everyone wants that mode of the future.
I don’t think that’s actually the problem. I think the problem is we have so little regulatory state capacity now. Look again, the way to fix this is a combination of the regulatory state, which Europe has a better one than we do. They’ve got real laws that they’re passing through multilateral commissions of multiple countries. We could do that too.
We would just need to give Lina Khan eight years in the FTC and a court system that doesn’t have a bunch of ideologues that are just going to try to strike her down because they read Ayn Rand too, give her that and we could get there. That’s actually, from where we are, really hard. Give us a wealth tax, so that Silicon Valley is full of multi-millionaires rather than 100 billionaires. The Californian ideology becomes a lot less powerful.
The reason why it’s so powerful is just because so much economic power is now concentrated there, but that’s not a natural state of things. That’s the result of a set of policy choices. Now, how do we back out of those policy choices in the narrow band of time that we have before democracy gets undermined and climate makes every single thing more dangerous and worse?
I’m a big worrier, I’m very worried. That’s the reason why some of the work that I’ve been doing recently, like this lecture that I gave about the four futures of the internet, the point of that is actually to call on the segments of Silicon Valley that have decided we ought to take climate seriously and encourage them to push a little harder.
Now, that’s pleading with our wealthy tech benefactors to please help, but I’m going to do that too. That’s going to give us a wealth tax so that we don’t have this extreme, absurd inequality, or a functional regulatory state. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild a regulatory state after four years of Trump, of course it is.
That’s all to say I don’t think it’s that the California ideology is so potent that it can’t be undermined. The thing that makes it potent is it’s very appealing to boomers and they tell a lot of capital. It’s also just a nice, simple story of how the version of scientists that you read about in Isaac Asimov novels are the ones who can go and save the world.
In an increasingly complicated dire world, it’s a compelling story to believe that the version of Elon Musk that he wants us to envision is going to be tinkering in a lab and it is going to make us an interplanetary species. Sam Altman, you may have covered this on the how before, Sam Altman has decided that the solution to climate change is cold fusion.
Now, there’s maybe a 0.1% chance the cold fusion works out. If so, that would make a big difference. If your only solution to climate change is that we’re finally, magically going to have a breakthrough on a technology or a scientific breakthrough that an awful lot of very good scientists have concluded there’s just no there, then there’s something helpless about that.
There’s at least something about trying to ‘tech magic’ your way out of things, instead of doing the hard sociopolitical work that probably really needs to be done. I don’t think it’s that the California ideology is intellectually so potent that it can’t be not argued or it’s just going to have too many adherents. It’s just that when you don’t have enough of a functional regulatory state and the people who have benefited from that now have all of the money, and therefore everyone else is looking at them saying, I guess that’s the only pathway to success, digging out of that is really hard when you’ve got a ticking clock.
That’s not because of the ideology, that’s because of just all the other ways over the past 25 years, we fucked up to get to this point.
I don’t know. It’s very possible to me to imagine this tech pipe that we’re laying, no matter what we do with each of these four futures you described, as just propping up some authoritarian society. I don’t know. Mark Zuckerberg will tell you that tech should be part of the solution when it comes to solving democracy’s problems. I don’t know if, on balance, that I see it trending in that direction at the moment, that tech has become more of anti-democratic force than a pro-democratic one. It’s hard to imagine how to retrieve that.
I come out of the environmental movement. Environmentalist historically are the only people predicting the future who would like to be wrong. The thing that took me as a scholar from environmentalism and political organizing to studying the history of tech is if I am right about the state and trajectory of the country and the world, then there is very low.
Also, the place where I am most frequently wrong is about developments in technology and how it interacts with society and politics. I started studying MoveOn and the Dean Campaign because when I saw what a big deal they were it was a surprise to me. I didn’t understand it. That was a way that I was wrong about politics.
When I wrote the book Analytic Activism it was because I saw how those organizations were using data to make decisions. That was different from how I understood the world, so I wanted to go and investigate. I’m a pessimist with you in that when I look at the role of technology in politics and society right now, we are in real bad shape and I don’t see how it gets better.
Also, as an old environmentalist, I’m one of the only people predicting the future who would like to be wrong. The hope is that the world 10 years from now, well, I am confident that the world 10 years from now will include a bunch of things that I don’t see coming. They aren’t set in stone. We can help to nudge them and shape them. Can technology help to solve these problems? Yeah.
Will technology help to shape these problems if it is being guided by a bunch of Peter Thiel acolytes? No. We need different people to be driving this making different decisions along the way, because if the world is going to keep on changing in ways that we can’t see along with the ways that we can see, then we need to hope that we come up with some angles that make things different in a good way.
Right now, things keep breaking in a bad way. If that keeps on happening, then we’re headed for a full dystopia. I’m not confident that we’re going to get to a full dystopia because there’s so much that I don’t know yet. There’s so much that I can be wrong about. I think as a pessimist, we want to look for the things that we can be wrong about because that weirdly enough, that is where our hope should come from.
Are there one or two or three things that you think if I’m wrong about this, then perhaps that will restore my hope?
There’s fundamental technologie, again– if I’m wrong about cold fusion, which I don’t specialize in cold fusion, it just sounds ridiculous to me. Show me that I’m wrong in some fundamental technology that is going to matter for markets and politics and everything else, just be a game changer, that would give me hope.
Right now, I’m very pessimistic because I think both tech elites and political elites have learned that they can be unscrupulous without facing any consequences. I’m working on a piece right now related to what we’ve been talking about. It’s for an edited volume on preventing the next January 6th.
The main point that I’m making in that is, if you want to prevent the next January 6th, there need to be consequences, not just for the people who participate in the insurrection, but also the elites that spread viral lies because it’s profitable. If there’s no consequences for the elites, then we guarantee a next one.
Right now, I expect that there’s basically no consequences for them. If I’m wrong about that, if they are held to account either socially or politically or legally, if there are big consequences for that crowd that end up sending a message that there actually are boundaries, that would give me a lot of hope because I just don’t ever see it happening.
I’m with you there. Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about January 6th for the same reason that it seems like it should be a final backstop to this culture of corruption, as you say, this unaccountable exercise of power. We’ll see, and we’ve got a couple of weeks of hearings in front of us. We’ll see what happens through the remainder of the summer.
I feel like one of the refrains that I always have on my depressing Twitter account is there is no bottom. The thing that would give us hope, that would give me hope is if we actually reach a point where it’s clear, we have reached bottom and things go up from there. There has to be a bottom somewhere.
If and when we reach it and we see, “Now, things really do turn.” That’ll give me a lot of hope.
Well, Dave, I hope I’ll get the chance to bring you back on in perhaps when we can point to the upward pointy arrow and be optimistic, and maybe wear some smiles. Thank you very much for talking to me today.
Bring me back in better times. That sounds great.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.