September 26, 2018

Is It “Techno-Chauvinist” and “Anti-Humanist” to Believe in the Transformative Potential of Technology?

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow

I’ve always been perplexed by tech critiques that seek to pit “humanist” values against technology or technological processes, or that even suggest a bright demarcation exists between these things. Properly understood, “technology” and technological innovation are simply extensions of our humanity and represent efforts to continuously improve the human condition. In that sense, humanism and technology are compliments, not opposites.

I started thinking about this again after reading a recent article by Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal, which introduced me to the term “techno-chauvinism.” Techno-chauvinism is a new term that some social critics are using to identify when technologies or innovators are apparently not behaving in a “humanist” fashion. Mims attributes the term techno-chauvinism to Meredith Broussard of New York University, who defines it as “the idea that technology is always the highest and best solution, and is superior to the people-based solution.” [Italics added.] Later on Twitter, Mims defined and critiqued techno-chauvinism as “the belief that the best solution to any problem is technology, not changing our culture, habits or mindset.”

Everything Old is New Again

There are other terms critics have used to describe the same notion, including: “techno-fundamentalism” (Siva Vaidhyanathan), “cyber-utopianism,” and “technological solutionism” (Evgeny Morozov). In a sense, all these terms are really just variants of what scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have long referred to as “technological determinism.”

As I noted in a recent essay about determinism, the traditional “hard” variant of technological determinism refers to the notion that technology almost has a mind of its own and that it will plow forward without much resistance from society or governments. Critics argue that determinist thinking denies or ignores the importance of the human element in moving history forward, or what Broussard would refer to as “people-based solutions.”

The first problem with this thinking is there are no bright lines in these debates and many “softer” variants of determinism exist. The same problem is at work when we turn to discussions about both “humanism” and “technology.” Things get definitionally murky quite quickly, and everyone seemingly has a preferred conception of these terms to fit their own ideological dispositions. “Humanism is a rather vague and contested term with a convoluted history,” observes tech philosopher Michael Sacasas. And here’s an essay that I have updated many times over the years to catalog the dozens of different definitions of “technology” I have unearthed in my ongoing research.

Thus, when we hear “humanist” critiques of “technology,” I can’t help but think that many of them begin with an unclear explanation of what both those terms mean and how they are related. Here’s how I think about them.

“Technology” is not some magical force or shiny device that appeared out of thin air. All technology is the product of human design. The most straightforward definition of “technology” is simply the application of knowledge to a task. When critics claim that innovators or their defenders are “chauvinists” who think that technological solutions are “superior to the people-based solution,” they are creating a nonsensical dichotomy because technological solutions are the same thing as “people-based solution.” People create technologies to solve problems. We can imagine the first person who struck two stones together to make a spark and light a fire, or the first humans who fashioned knives or bows and arrows to hunt game. Were they not being “humanist” by pursuing a better way to feed themselves and others? Personally, I cannot think of anything more “humanist” than creating or using whatever tools one can to put the next meal on the table! Eventually, most tools and processes like these become so ordinary that we no longer even consider them “technology” at all. They just become part of the fabric of our lives and we come to take them for granted.

What some critics mean by “humanism” is also confusing for reasons that were nicely identified by Andrew McAfee in his 2015 Financial Times essay, “Who are the humanists, and why do they dislike technology so much?” McAfee pointed out that some “humanist” critiques of technological innovation are relatively banal to the extent they are simply reminding us that all people are important, or that all technological process involve trade-offs that we should be aware of.

Of course these things are true, McAfee noted. But it is also true that technological advancement solves far more problems than it creates by helping to reduce hunger and disease, travel further, communicate more widely, gain leisure time, and so on. Moreover, there are trade-offs associated with all human actions. Limiting ongoing innovations and improvements that could better the human condition gives rise to equally significant trade-offs. In any event, to the extent “humanism” can be reduced to UP WITH PEOPLE! and TRADE-OFFS MATTER!, I think all of us would consider ourselves to be “humanists.”

The Vision of the Anointed

But there’s a third conception of “humanism” McAfee identified that he regarded as far more problematic. I will label it the “Vision of the Anointed,” to borrow a phrase Thomas Sowell used in his book about the way some elites allow rhetorical flourishes and good intentions to trump actual real-world evidence and results. McAfee summarized this humanist version of the Vision of the Anointed as follows: “Because I am for the people I should be free from having to support my contentions with anything more than rhetoric.” Or, more simply: “You can trust what I say, because I am on the side of people instead of the cold, hard machines.”

That sort of vision is at work in a great deal of STS scholarship, and has been for a long, long time. Indeed, modern conceptions of “humanism” and critiques of “techno-chauvinism” or “solutionism” are just restatements of the lamentations of countless previous media critics or technology critics from the past, including Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Langdon Winner, Christopher Lasch, and many others. Much criticism of this sort ends up suggesting — either directly or implicitly — that technological innovation is anti-human or “de-humanizing” in some fashion and should, therefore, be rejected, reversed, or at least slowed down considerably.

For example, in Lasch’s 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven, the social critic lambasted what he called “progressive optimism” for its supposed “denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom.” Lasch desired a “populism for the twenty-first century” that “would find much of its moral inspiration in the popular radicalism of the past and most generally in the wide-ranging critique of progress, enlightenment, and unlimited ambition.”

This gets to the real irony associated with the Humanistic Vision of the Anointed: It doesn’t place a lot of faith in humans! In this highly pessimistic and often quite elitist worldview, the masses seemingly do not understand what is in their own best interests, and the material gains of modern civilization are, at once, both a fiction to be scoffed at and a reality to be scorned as counterproductive or “anti-human.” What is the alternative arrangement for society that is set forth by those subscribing to the Vision of the Anointed? As Lasch suggests, it comes down to acceptance of limits. In closing his book, Lasch called for the return of a humanistic “state of heart and mind” that “asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits.” In other words, we should be happy with what we’ve got because progress ain’t so great.

Pastoral Myths & the “Good ‘Ol Days”

This also explains the enduring power of “pastoral myths” in the work of such critics. If you spend enough time reading through works of technology and media criticism, you often find allusions made to some supposedly better time  — the proverbial “good ‘ol days” — when life was supposed simplier or better in some way. Other times, it is just implied that life in the present isn’t as good as it was in the past.

The problem is that those good ‘ol days weren’t so great. “Demonizing innovation is often associated with campaigns to romanticize past products and practices,” Calestous Juma noted in his 2016 book,Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. “Opponents of innovation hark back to traditions as if traditions themselves were not inventions at some point in the past.” That was especially the case in battles over new farming methods and technologies, when opponents of change were frequently “championing a moral cause to preserve a way of life,” as Juma discusses in several chapters of his book. New products or methods of production were repeatedly but wrongly characterized as dangerous or anti-human simply because they were not supposedly “natural” or “traditional” enough in character.

Of course, if all farming and other work was to remain frozen in some past “natural” state, we’d all still be hunters and gathers struggling to find the next meal to put in our bellies. Or, if we were all still on the farms of the “good ‘ol days,” then we’d still be stuck using an ox and plow in the name of preserving the “traditional” ways of doing things.

Humanity has made amazing strides—including being able to feed more people more easily and cheaply than ever before—precisely because we broke with those old, “natural” traditions. Alas, many vested interests, and even quite a few academics, still employ these same pastoral appeals and myths to oppose new forms of technological change. The case studies in Juma’s book powerfully illustrate why that dynamic continues to be a driving force in innovation policy debates and how it delays the diffusion of many important new life-enriching goods and services.

Trial and Error

When the opponents of change rest their case on pastoral myths and nostalgic arguments about the good ‘ol days, we should remind them that those days were, in reality, eras of abject misery. Widespread poverty, mass hunger, poor hygiene, short lifespans, and so on were the norm. What lifted humanity up and improved our lot as a species is that we learned how to apply knowledge to tasks in a better way through incessant trial and error experimentation. In other words, we flourished by innovating. And the results of our innovative activities were called technologies.

In this sense, humanism and technology have gone hand in hand throughout history. Steven Pinker put it best in his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress:“Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. The goal of maximizing human flourishing–life, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experiences–may be called humanism.”

Our technologies are simply extensions of our knowledge and represent profoundly humanist efforts to improve our lives and the lives of others around us. “We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one,” Pinker notes. “But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing,” he rightly concludes.

The Right Balance

Of course, as Pinker hints, we can go too far sometimes or place too much faith in our tools. Pursuing perfection through technological betterment can end in folly, or worse. In my previous essay, “Deep Technologies & Moonshots: Should We Dare to Dream,” I noted that over-exuberant tech boosters are sometimes guilty of the same rhetorical excesses and inflated claims that some humanist critics practice. Some tech evangelists go too far in suggesting that technological innovation can solve all the problems of the world. Other times, they ignore or ridicule the importance of other human values, traditions, or institutions to long-term human flourishing and over-value convenience or efficiency.

When innovation advocates go overboard, they should be called out for it. But that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for a better future, and one in which technology is rightly viewed as the fundamental driver of human well-being. No matter what some critics say, technological solutions are people-based solutions. We craft tools to solve important problems and to better our lives and the lives of our loved ones. What could be more “humanist” than that?