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Forget a16z, this is why we should all be techne-optimists: a summary (IV/IV)

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By Nathan Kinch

· 8 min read

This is part four of a four-part series on techno-optimism. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

As you can see from this brief tour of our adapted argument for techno-optimism, we are describing ourselves as some, albeit fairly unique, flavour of techne-optimists. This is based on (TL;DR summary):

  1. Our value system

  2. Our assessment of ‘the facts’

  3. Our speculations about possible futures

  4. The ways in which wiser, more responsible technology design, deployment and use (an inherently relational, non-dual process) can contribute to making preferable futures more probable. And

  5. Our belief in humanity’s collective capacity to causally influence said preferable futures by leaning into the challenges and working together to explore ways to progress beyond

Before getting into some of the more useful stuff around the Three Horizons Framework, we do need to say a thing (or many!) about our accelerationist friends over at a16z and beyond. Due to practical constraints, we cannot systematically analyse every ‘belief based’ statement that features in the manifesto. What we can do is call your attention to some concerning – based on our value system, assessment of ‘the facts’, expectations about what is both possible and preferable, our philosophy of technology and a few other bits and bobs – ‘themes’ that prominently feature in the text.

Prior to that, we will call your attention to the 2022 paper published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, ‘Digitalisation and the Anthropocene’. In this paper, Creutzig et al. highlight the fact that “digitalization has historically increased environmental impacts at local and planetary scales, affecting labor markets, resource use, governance, and power relationships”. When combined with the latest review of decoupling in The Lancet, which demonstrates that sufficient absolute decoupling is happening way too slow (that’s the gist anyways), it seems very hard to justify the strong techno-optimist view of (certain types of) technology and ‘free markets’ saving us from ecological overshoot* and the myriad issues that relate to and depend on it (if your strategy is a fancy ass bunker, then a rocket to some micro colony on mars… well, we can see how your views may differ from ours).

*We build upon this in the theme about biophysical (il)literacy.

Theme 1: Elitism and a fundamentally distorted worldview

The manifesto oversimplifies complex socio-economic issues, attributing them almost solely to a lack of technological advancement (and enabling the freedom of free markets to operate of course). It’s a reductionist narrative that feels elitist, assuming a one-size-fits-all technological solution, whilst overlooking systemic inequalities that are well established empirically.

Mat took it up himself to watch this episode of The Ben and Marc show, where the two founders of a16z discussed the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. There seems to be a serious lack of reflexivity (this is specifically present as they discuss certain types of powerful personas, but don’t seem to realise they are amongst the most elite / powerful / influential people in the world), amongst many other things.

To Ben and Marc’s credit, there’s some attempted mythopoetic sense-making and a few other things that feel more nuanced than the manifesto itself.

Theme 2: Misquoting and half-truths

The quotations and historical narratives within the manifesto are not the result of an integrity-filled sense-making process, but rather an attempt to reinforce a dogma that has already been established. Such a narrow and selective representation distorts our understanding of technological development and its wide spectrum of impacts, from the most wonderful to the utterly woeful.

Theme 3: Tech as a panacea

Positing technology as a solution to all material problems in this context feels like a strange kind of naive progress narrative, an indulgent form of technological determinism. The entire manifesto overlooks the nuanced relationality of technology, society, and the rest of the biosphere.

Nate Hagens addressed the point about 1000x-ing (well, Marc actually wants to see something like a 5000x increase from where we are today) energy usage recently. As Nate highlights, the perspective in the manifesto is ‘catastrophically energy blind… well intentioned, but absolutely clueless of the physics, the energy and the ecology of our situation’. To cuddle this one home, the waste heat alone (and this is assuming low-carbon/renewable sources), would increase global average temperatures by 40 degrees fahrenheit (about 4.5 degrees celsius). Not long after this the oceans would literally boil…!!! Happy days eh?

Theme 4: The free market as god (in other words, worshipping Moloch and amplifying the metacrisis)

This endorsement of free markets oversimplifies the complex dynamics of market economies and overlooks market failures and the mother of all elephants, externalities. The content also seems to assume a level playing field, which is utter BS. Whether we look at the Gini Coefficient or other methods of assessing inequality, the story is the same. Inequality is getting worse, not better. Most of (not all, of course) the benefits of modernisation go to the few, in the form of capital accumulation.

Yada yada.

Adding to this, Herman Daly, one of the most prominent figures in ecological economics and former Senior Advisor to the World Bank, once said “Economics is an ideology masquerading as a science.”

Also, this reddit thread on ‘When Idiot Savants Do Climate Economics’ is enjoyable and insightful. It also relates to Theme 7.

It might be time to start taking aspects of economics as something less than ground truth people.

Theme 5: Historical and philosophical dirt

What can we say here… The manifesto demonstrates an unfounded and poorly grounded understanding of historical and philosophical contexts. It articulates something like a linear view of progress, which misses viewpoints that acknowledge the complex, typically non-linear, interactions between technology, humanity, culture, our environment and society.

We don’t get the sense that the a16z crew live in loving relation to the process of wisdom seeking (if you’re looking for philosophy, you won’t find it in the manifesto).

Theme 6: Reinforcing the SV mindset

This is a promotion of techno-utopianism (it feels strangely like some of the early episodes of Silicon Valley where a certain billionaire builds a mechanical island… Then dies!) that lacks critical engagement with the broader socio-political and ethical implications of technology development. And there will be no ‘negotiation with the enemy’ (tech ethicists).

Theme 7: Biophysical incompatibility

Briefly, “the term ‘biophysical’ describes the abiotic and biotic conditions of an environment and includes chemical, biological, physical and ecological components. These conditions and processes can occur naturally (e.g, currents), and/or be influenced by anthropogenic drivers (e.g., ocean warming).”

You may have noticed (putting it kindly) ‘insufficient’ detail in the manifesto (again, 1000x-ing energy as the claim, with zero substance to back it up). There was nothing substantive about earth system sciences or any other field that attempts to deeply understand, using the best tools we have, the impact of humanity’s activities on biospheric systems (and how all of that impacts the short, mid and long-term liveability of this planet).

Given the very strong belief-based statements about what technology (SV magic that a small few ‘control’) might enable us to do, we would have expected more. We would have expected consideration for the years of inquiry since Limits to Growth was first published. We would have expected an articulation of how said magic would somehow overcome the Jevon’s paradox. We would have expected some substantive information about how sufficient absolute decoupling might be achieved.

But no. Just no. All ideology, close to no science and certainly no actual philosophy. It is a manifesto after all.

Let’s call this section here. We could go on, and hope we do through more dynamic and deliberate discussion. But for now, you have almost certainly gotten the gist.

Pathfinding together towards better horizons

Here’s Kate Raworth introducing you to the Three Horizons Framework.

If you’re not familiar with this, please stop reading and watch the video. It really is one of the best explanations, including practical examples, of the framework out there.

three horizones framework

So what can we say here that’s useful?

Firstly, let’s talk about H1. Think of this as BAU. We all know a shit load of what we now consider BAU has to stop. So let’s suggest that we need to come together to explore how we can practically and relatively safely ‘biodegrade’ the stuff we’re currently doing that is harmful.

Let us now introduce you to H3, the preferable future.

This is where we work to establish a beautifully ambitious vision about how we’d love to live together, in healthy relation to the rest of life on this planet, in the future.

This isn’t some utopia where we ride unicorns. Although sign us up if that’s on the cards. Rather, it’s something like a collective remembering and returning. A reconnection to the sacredness of life (read: something we ought to regard with great respect, just because). Here we spend our days living healthy, dignified, creative and thoughtful lives, as best we can. And we find ways to do so whilst only taking from the world what can be regenerated in the same time period (living within planetary boundaries).

Importantly in this context, we see this as resulting from wise relation to both ‘low’ and very ‘high’ tech.

Now we have to talk about getting there. As we discussed earlier, there’s no one path to rule them all. However, we do need to ensure that our path is supporting the vision (H2+) and not reinforcing the status quo (H2-). This will require us to caringly connect, courageously collaborate and consciously coordinate our actions.

This does not have to mean sameness or homogeneity. But rather a broad vision about certain goals and boundaries, then plenty of flexibility to express our agency, creativity and cultural preferences.

It’s our belief that we can do this. Seriously. Humanity at its best is absolutely fucking beautiful.

It’s time to give ourselves the chance to be just that.

If any of this resonates, come pathfind with us.

Sending love to you and beyond, always.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Nathan Kinch is a specialist in sociotechnology ethics, action research, and social entrepreneurship, who has spent his career designing trustworthy organisations. He's the co-founder of Tethix, a social venture helping people (re)imagine and create technology that enables human and planetary flourishing.

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