Dusk Somewhere

An honest techno-Utopianism

Posted at — Sep 15, 2022 by Izzy Meckler

I just watched some of the videos of the talks from the “Schelling Point Conference”. These talks give a clear display of a current within the crypto/web3 space: techno-utopianism. Techno-Utopianism is an ideology which says that technological developments will result in improvements in human well-being. Usually, it is not a general faith in technological change, but specific to a certain kind of emerging technologies: the internet, blockchain, DAOs, AI, etc. I don’t know but I’m sure it predates computer technology as well, probably you can find people saying utopian things about cars and labor-saving domestic devices (washing machines, vaccums) after WWII.

Moreover, the improvements will be transformative. They will somehow fundamentally change (for the better) an aspect of individual or societal life. The technology will provide you with unlimited free time, or eradicate poverty, or allow you to connect with other people in a fundamentally deeper way.

However, techno-Utopianism is writing checks it cannot cash. Through examination of history we can see its prophecies have failed to be fulfilled in full time and time again. Most of us do not have more free time than we did before the washing machine was invented. The internet has not formed the basis of a global consciousness that would resolve all conflict between people. And, without a healthy dose of historical materialism, I claim blockchain-related technologies will not deliver us to the era of robust, democratic control over our lives, furnish “public goods”, or anything of the sort.

Critiquing techno-Utopianism

Techno-Utopianism stems partially from a good, moral desire: to make the world a better place. However, if you subscribe to it in naive forms, then you will fail in that goal. The problem, at its core, is that technological change is not the only force in the world — it is not happening in a vacuum. There are other forces around that will determine the ultimate consequences of any technological change.

Many believe in a moral-idealist version of techno-Utopianism. They say, “yes, of course we know that new technology can lead to bad results. We have seen what has happened with social media and so on. But we have learned our lesson and this time it will not happen, because we have the right intentions this time.”

Unfortunately, this view is also doomed to failure (although slightly less so) for essentially the same reason. The most naive version of techno-Utopianism rests on a belief that the only force that exists is technological change. The moral-idealist form rests on the belief that only two forces exist: technological change and the wills of technologists/entrepreneurs.

This is why I call it moral-idealist — because it rests on the belief that these technologists have the right moral principles and ideas, and therefore all will come right in the end.

Probably there are other, increasingly sophisticated versions of techno-Utopianism out there, which incorporate the existence of more and more forces in history.

But, the most influential forces are absent from every dominant form of techno-Utopianism: the laws of motion of capital accumulation. When we take these laws into account, the riddle of why technological change fails to provide us with more free time, more satisfying lives, more control over our lives, democracy, etc., is solved. The dynamics of capitalism ensure that those problems will not be resolved as long as capitalism remains[0].

What this means is that a realistic techno-Utopianism, one that really wants to see technological change be a force for good in history, must be anti-capitalist.

But it does not suffice to merely be anti-capitalist in principle. It must identify and work with the real opportunities to transcend capitalism, and among those, find ones that also include technological change playing a positive role in human life.

Any real lasting change in human society cannot be accomplished by a single person[1]. It requires a group of people, working in concert. And it must be the case that these people really will all work in a given direction, even when the dynamics of capitalism are taken into consideration.

This is the problem with the moral-idealist techno-Utopianism: it is not sufficient to have the right ideas. In capitalism, if you are organized as a capitalist firm and do not use new technology in a certain way — namely to improve your position in the market via increased exploitation of labor or otherwise — you will be selected against by competition. Cryptocurrency-funded organizations complicate this somewhat because they are not sustained directly by surplus-value production, but I believe the same analysis fundamentally applies since their ability to continue is ultimately controlled by investors seeking profits.

Marxists argue that our best hope for creating a new society is the working class organizing into formations that are not completely controlled by the coercive laws of market-competition.

What could be the purpose of techno-Utopianism?

The current purpose of techno-Utopianism is to legitimize what tech companies do, give people (false) hope for progress, and motivate technical workers by allowing them to invest their work with a transcendental meaning.

Is there therefore anything in techno-Utopianism worth saving? Yes, I think so. There are many tech workers (myself included) who do invest their technical work with substantial meaning, and are therefore highly motivated to work on technology. Technological skills can be of substantial use in the class struggle, and so I think it is worth trying to articulate a techno-Utopianism that can serve to help orient those who want to put their skills to productive use for humanity.

Class-struggle technologism

I tried to enumerate a few practical examples of what a class-struggle technologism could look like in practice:

Is a real techno-Utopianism possible?

There are those who argue that there is no set of provisos and conditions one can add to ensure that technological change will play a positive role for humanity, and therefore oppose technological change generally. Famous examples include Ted Kaczynski and the Amish.

There are some good arguments for this view, e.g., that technology develops too quickly for humans to be able to ensure its consequences are positive, etc. To me, I prefer to be dialectical and use these arguments to generate provisos we must add to our list. I.e., a real techno-Utopianism would include mechanisms to control the pace of technological change to ensure proper human oversight.

Rejecting technological change in general is incorrect because it is an inevitable aspect of reality now that human beings exist. It is as absurd as rejecting evolution by natural selection after the creation of life. Human beings create tools in their process of living and reproducing themselves and their society. It is a trans-historical fact about human society. The specific nature of that technology is not trans-historical, it is conditioned by the social-relations and other conditions of the society producing and using that technology.

Personally, I live my life with the belief that it is possible to go from capitalism to a society in which we can use some of the technology produced by capitalism to serve human desires. The only alternatives are a world without humans, or a wish to collapse to subsistence and then likely experience the same teleological historical progression civilization has already gone through.

The material basis of techno-utopianism

This is sort of a bonus section exploring the question: if techno-Utopianism is incorrect, why it is such a persistent ideology? How does it get reproduced? Shouldn’t it get eliminated through competition in “the marketplace of ideas”?

Here is a partial attempt to explain its persistence:

We may also ask the question “why are the laws of motion of capital absent from every dominant techno-Utopianism”. I think the this can mostly be explained by the fact that the dominant versions of techno-Utopianism are those being sustained by capitalism, and so are unlikely to be critical of that system. A VC is not going to fund a tech company that promises to eliminate VCs.