Are capitalism and full-throttle technology bad for humanity? Unpacking the positives and negatives of tech, innovation and our future

February 14, 2024

Public opinion on big tech is predominantly doom and gloom today. We point at corporate greed and late stage capitalism redistributing wealth to the 1%, with disregard to everything but shareholder value, at the expense of the populace. Since GPT and other Large Language Models (LLMs) our worries have worsened. What’s more, it seems that the first effects of climate change are being seen, worldwide.

These worries are more than just warranted, and humanity is certainly in for a very challenging future. But as my first full article on a series about humanising data science and technology, I’d like us to think a bit deeper about these topics. When it comes to thinking about the future in our hands, and how technology impacts it, I’d like to make four main points that we as tech workers should think about

Yes, these points are more political and philosophical than technical, but I think they will serve as a solid base for thinking about the decisions we make as data scientists, engineers and managers. Because some of us are going to make it big, and be making equally big decisions. These decisions are going to matter.

Over the last few hundred years, technology has led to an unprecedented quality of life for humans, on average. When it comes to highlighting the positives of where technology has left us, Superabundance and The Techno-Optimist Manifesto do a great job*. Compared to humans at any other point of time, we are very lucky:

* I want to make it clear that I agree with some facts posited in these sources, but disagree very hard with their overall premise of relentless positivity, because they miss one VERY BIG piece of logic

There is no doubt that technology - the industrial revolution, the scientific method, and capitalism rewarding those who add value with heaps of money - has brought us to a golden age. We’ve put ourselves in a super efficient feedback loop. Innovation is rewarded with a lot of money, and venture capitalists are incentivised to fork out huge investments just for the chance of more innovation.

However, if you’ve read Superabundance, The Techno-Optimist Manifesto, pieces about Accelerationasm or any other VC-written, relentlessly positive piece of writing, the main problem with their arguments is how polarised they are. In 575 pages, Superabundance does not once bring the obvious counterargument that you probably thought about just while reading the above: just because we’ve been in a golden age due to technology, capitalism and rewarding economic growth, it doesn’t mean that we’ll continue on the same trajectory. It’s akin to driving at full speed towards backed-up traffic, ignoring the big accident you’re about to cause because, well, so far everything has gone at full speed - why would this ever change?

There’s no reason that human progress should follow a linear curve.

“Whether you’re building a family, a startup, a spaceship, a robot, or better energy policy, just build,” writes this anonymous human . “Do something hard. Do it for everyone who comes next. That’s it. Existence will take care of the rest.” No, no thats not how it works. Maybe if you grow up as a good looking, rich and privileged person in the USA, then you’re used to everything being taken care of for you and things just working out, but in the real world, we face consequences.

The same level of criticism should go towards the other end of the spectrum: techno-pessimism: any anti-tech Luddite writings like Blood in the Machine write about how we should fight back against technology, or we’re doomed. They cherry pick arguments about jobs lost due to automation, whether through factories or AI. However, they ignore the main counterarguments - that unemployment rate has remained (while fluctuating) more or less the same since the early 1900s, and that our quality and length of life has increased.

Its not linear

The point I want to make here is very simple - we should avoid polarising our arguments, because it’s blatantly obvious that the answer lies somewhere on the spectrum between relentless positivity and doom-and-gloom. In an argument for unpolarised arguments, Tim Urban’s What’s our Problem makes the point that (especially politically), society is trending much more polarised. We are, thanks in great part to technology and media, reinforcing biases and narrow worldviews rather than fostering collaborative, diverse environments through constructive arguments. This is not good news - because there is no better tool for progress than collective, diverse thought. But culture (such as American politics), technology (such as algorithms driving engagement in Facebook and Youtube) are killing this process.

So, revising the matter at hand: We’re in a golden age. Technological progress has led us here. We are also in for some bad times - climate change, another round of job losses due to AI. However, arguments about the future tend to polarise into two camps:

The undeniable truth is that absolutely nobody knows enough to make a convincing argument in either direction. It just depends on too many unknowns, philosophies, uncomfortable taboos, subjectivity, or things we can’t measure yet. Here are three simple examples illustrate this:

None of those questions are answerable without either having strong philosophical opinions, information about the future, or both.

The core principle behind the damage from these unknowns is fragility. While I’ll cover this in-depth in a future article with many examples, the concept is quite simple: technology now moves faster than humans, the environment, or virtually any ecosystem such as governments or economies can react and adapt. Our lack of adaptation can cause us damage, often unintended. Every ecosystem, person, or animal, is more fragile than we like to admit. Examples of each are:

Historically, fragility has been massively overlooked in favour of profit. Big tech companies are now worth trillions, and taking over the world. They are so self-driven that they don’t care about the future beyond beyond their next few years of profit. The window of their interests is far, far smaller than that of your children. Board members and other employees are abstracted from the damage these companies do - they have no blood on their hands. Chouinard, in Let My People Go Surfing says “Limited liability corporations are institutions created explicitly to separate humans from the effects of their actions—making them, by definition, inhuman and inhumane.” This ignorance, intentional or not, is almost entirely responsible for every worry we have about the world today.

Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, the same ignorance of fragility has no doubt led to a lot of innovation and technical progress. If we worried about everything that could go wrong, we would go nowhere.

Capitalism and its intentional acceleration of technological progress have led us to a golden age, but also done an unquantifiable amount of damage to the future through climate change. The average person has become less poor, some immensely rich, and some unlucky ones have already lost their careers to AI or layoffs in companies which could afford not to lay them off. Many people have the ability, thanks to technology, to live fulfilling lives as knowledge workers, rather than working in sweatshops, whilst others do work in sweatshops and lose their jobs. It’s complicated, and will remain so.

So what can we do?

Remember, the future is still uncertain, and we are the ones shaping it. Let’s not polarise our arguments about capitalism, technological acceleration, AI, or any places where we feel fear of the unknown.

Continually bring your curious mind back to fragility. See the consequences of your innovation, and the interaction between humans and technology is as important as the technology itself. Over the next few years, thanks to rapidly accelerating gains in AI, in relative terms, we’re going to be even slower than before in our reaction to new innovation. So in light of our fragility, we’re also going to have to be proactive - for instance, some concepts like Universal Basic Income and Reeducation are already pivotal as careers are more rapidly replaced by automation.

Focus on factfulness in our world of worries, fake news, misinformation and greed. Learn to think critically and separate worries versus facts versus can’t-knows.

Quite simply, since technology moves faster than almost anything can react, as the rank and file of tech organisations, its up to us we need to pragmatically point technology in the right direction. Every decision we make contributes towards the magnitude and direction of technological progress, and this impacts systems before they can react.

It’s no small feat.

© 2024 Ryan Anderson