December 8, 2020

The Purpose of Technology is Human Flourishing

As technologists we have too long been unclear on what our ideology is.

In "The Purpose of Technology" Balaji Srinivasan argues that though continued technological progress is necessary for the material improvement of life for people around the world, mainstream culture is becoming increasingly cynical that this is  possible.

Strinivasan's essay is a call to arms which aims to address the situation, through the mobilization of technological progressives to evangelize the necessity and fruit of technological progress in a frontal assault on the public consciousness.

I had previously written about the root cause of this cynicism before the essay was published, but responding to “The Purpose of Technology” directly has allowed me to clarify my own thinking further. We agree on the urgency and nature of the problem, we agree on the magnitude if not the character of the stakes, but we differ on how we got here and what to do next.

Purpose - A Telos for Technological Progress

Srinivasan uncompromisingly states two purposes for technological (and presumably scientific) progress; proximally to reduce scarcity and ultimately to eliminate mortality.

He calls forth these purposes to declare the importance of the stakes we’re playing for; freedom from want, and freedom from death. Srinivasan sees mortality as the ultimate scarcity; the elimination of death as the final freedom from want. These are high stakes, worthy of mobilization. They are also not sufficient to mobilize the culture because they are material and not for want of better words, spiritual or ideological.

These are economic goals and technological outcomes that, despite their considerable importance, are not a purpose for technological progress. Where Srinivasan posits the problem as technologists having not effectively evangelized for these outcomes and how close they might be, my position is we are not being honest with ourselves about what we want. As technologists we have too long been unclear on what our ideology is, what the real humanistic (rather than material) purpose of technological progress is.

The purpose of technological progress is embedded deeply in the human spirit and is born of the same kiln as the purpose of art.

If technological progress can be said to have an ideology, it is in the first place the creation of something that has never before existed which pleases us individually and collectively, and in the second place the putting in reach of mankind, of every human, powers to shape their reality and material existence. To learn things about the world nobody has ever known before.

Recognizing, solidifying, and amplifying the ideological underpinnings of scientific and technological progress gives us the clear sight necessary to truly mobilize the culture. Yes, this ideology results in improving everyone’s material circumstances, but these material improvements are downstream. To create is a human act, and technological progress is an act of creation. And just as in any humanistic endeavor, we may stumble and struggle along the way.

The mainstream culture does not ask for a purpose for the artist; it is self evident that art is a human act. We must strive to be regarded by the culture in the same way. Then we will have the mobilization that Srinivasan seeks.

Gospel - Evangelizing Technological Progress

Having established the stakes we are playing for, Srinivasan proceeds to outline what the newly mobilized technological progressives ought to do to get the word out.

His model is the creation of a parallel media ecosystem focused on promoting the material boons that are the downstream products of technical progress. The proposed approach falls into a trap brought on by uncharacteristically narrow thinking, and yet is tantalizingly close to my own view on what should be done.

In the very first paragraph of this section, Srinivasan brings forth the word duty. Duty is a word of ideology; there is no duty without a belief in something outside ourselves. Srinivasan states that technologists have not taken the duty of evangelizing technological progress seriously.

He neglects to more deeply consider why this is so (wryly stating later that technologists are perhaps too busy), and yet this question is of critical importance to mobilizing people. Duty is felt in the same place as love, one doesn’t get too busy for duty. Without a strong and full-throated ideological foundation based on humanistic principles, that which is felt deep in the soul, there can be no duty.

Next Srinivasan very nearly manages to decouple an ideology of technical progress from the material results. He says; “This may mean less focus on the businesses and personalities of technology. ... What we care about is the goal of transcendence. ... A corporate vehicle is just one means to an end, not an end in itself.”. But he doesn’t quite reach escape velocity; “The point of doing a startup after all is to build something you can't buy”. Our culture's view of technological progress can no longer be about what one can or cannot buy.

Here we see the problem with framing an ideology of technological progress in material terms. It is immediately captured by the language of capital reproduction, of making money. And that is the fault that caused technical progress to fall out of favor in the broader culture; technical progress came to be seen as a tool primarily for making money.

There are very many ways to make money, many of  the most lucrative of which our culture finds distasteful if not outright immoral. Conversely, most of the ways of making money contribute little to technical progress. The tech ecosystem Srinivasan calls on is deeply entwined with the mechanisms of capital reproduction. That’s what mainstream culture is reacting to. That’s how we went from scrappy idealistic hackers to snotty rich kids in the popular mind.

The cultural reaction has been swift and destructive, if not materially then certainly ideologically. That’s how “learn to code” went from an empowering mandate to grasp the future and became an acerbic response when someone is fired.

But we were hackers and scientists and idealists before anyone made a buck with a PC. If we believe in the magnitude of the stakes in play, we cannot afford to allow the perception of technological progress to continue to be wedded to capital reproduction. From the viewpoint that the ideology of technical progress as grounded in the human act of creation, this distinction is obvious. From  that of material progress, it isn’t.

Let's be real, a fundamental technical advance gives you the opportunity to get rich anyway. The key difference is that  we place material progress downstream of ideology, and capital rewards material progress wherever it comes from.

True Believers

Which way forward, if you really believe?

Srinivasan presents a vision of a parallel media ecosystem - the ‘exit’ of cultural production of the themes of technological progress from the mainstream media, so that the gospel of technical progress can be successfully propagated in the absence of journalistic cynicism.  This is in my opinion a mistake. We cannot afford to exit.

Though mainstream media may be fragmenting and dissolving into a million tiny islands, we cannot afford to merely create our own, even if it’s a particularly nice one. Nobody will know to show up except those who were already looking for it.

It will take a decentralized, sustained, broad, and ultimately culturally relevant effort by people speaking the language of the mainstream - not wrapped up in the capital-captured language of the tech startup, or the musty technical drone of academic philosopy - to reach people.

Despite some of my misgivings about the particulars of “The Purpose of Technology” the renewal of conversations about what technical progress means to people is extremely exciting. We have not really had this conversation as a culture for decades. Too much has been hollow cynicism or wide eyed bloodless naïveté.

Among the many things I agree with Srinivasan is the call for a renewed sense of responsibility among technologists. To do what we do with purpose, regardless of what drives it. And to be clear about what that purpose is to others and to ourselves.

The future is coming, and we must choose to rise to meet it.