typographic illustration: technology and optimism

Tech optimism vs naivety

Am I being naive in my optimism and enthusiasm about technology?

Exploring design and technology, I am often confronted with the question of whether I am an optimist or pessimist about tech and how it might affect society. Being curious and enthusiastic often gets misinterpreted as being unreflective and naive about potential dangers and societal implications.

I am well aware of this critique; in fact, I am my own worst critic in the first place.

But I think that as creatives, we need to play and experiment with upcoming technologies in order to understand and demystify them. This applies to technologies such as artificial intelligence, surveillance, DNA manipulation, and interfaces between body tech and nature. By accessing these technologies we enable ourselves to dream up new realities and new forms of coexistence between technology and society.

Dystopian outlooks vs tech utopias
We are surrounded by numerous dystopian outlooks on our future, especially in popular media. Usually, we see either a dystopian surveillance state (1984, Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Truman Show, Total Recall) or an AI that takes over the world and tries to kill us all (Terminator, Space Odyssey). On the other side of the spectrum are brightly optimistic, almost caricaturesque technological utopias provided by consumer tech companies ("AI will save the world. Make your life easier with tech. Be more productive, healthy, and happy").

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us (Marshall McLuhan)
Pyramid infographic showing the hierarchy between code (bottom), tech (middle) and society (top).

In this distorted field of hopes and expectations for the future, I believe it is vital to provide alternative optimistic outlooks. We need new visions of what the future can look like that inspire us and encourage us to actively work toward these visions. We need a variety of diverse outlooks on how people who experiment, play, and understand current technology envision a new form of coexistence between society and technology.

Destroying vs building
Thinking of dystopias is easy. The same way destroying things is easier than building them. Just look at the tech we have today and imagine the worst possible outcome for humanity: there’s your go-to dystopia.

But building things is much harder work. Imagining optimistic visions requires curiosity, empathy, creativity, an ethical framework, and, above all, a constructive mindset. It demands active engagement and self-efficacy instead of determinist passivity. It forces us into a mode of constructive creativity. This change of modes is reason enough for me to keep on developing these optimistic visions — dreaming up new realities is the first step towards making them real.

From black and white to a spectrum of grey
Of course, working with technologies that have the power to alter human DNA or reshape the entire planet is perilous and can lead to grave consequences. We might be tempted to leave these disrupting technologies to decorated experts in the field and hope that they make the right decisions for us. However, there is a real danger that individuals with less noble intentions may exploit these technologies for their political or economic agendas. This is precisely why I encourage artists and creatives to experiment and search for new approaches in these fields. To enable a democratic process of deciding how we implement certain technologies in our society we need a diversity of options. A duality of black and white solutions can never be enough. Capitalist and scientific visions alone are insufficient and simplified extremes open the door to populism and division. I plead for a broad spectrum of gray tones and nuanced voices and options to foster the democratic process and ultimately find better solutions together.

History/future takes the side roads
The future is not as clear as we sometimes let ourselves believe. What we do here and now can have a great effect. This is an empowering thought that forces us to step out of a deterministic, fatalist mindset. Curiosity, our unique human superpower, paired with exploration, and creative play lead us to new solutions. We can inspire, motivate, give hope, and show the diversity of potential routes.

History teaches us that "it usually takes the side roads, not the highways" Yuval Noah Harari. We should take this as an inspiration regarding the upcoming global challenges we have to face as a species. Climate change, managing the biosphere, toying with evolution and the human DNA. All of these things are highly dependent on our use and concept of merging technology with society.

Optimistic visions

High-tech elves residing in the cloud

Let's conclude this train of thought with an optimistic vision. We as humans have evolved over a long period of time and were shaped by natural selection for a particular lifestyle. Our current anatomy and psyche are still optimized for a hunter-gatherer way of life. Our bodies haven't quite caught up with our rapid cultural evolution over the last 10,000 years. What "makes us happy" today is still dictated by our biological optimization.

As hunter gatherers we are built for daily walks over long distances, being exposed to nature, weather, plant-life and animals, spending time with a small tribe of family members around a fire and telling stories while constantly moving from one place to another. Our current industrial lifestyle typically involves the exact opposite: sitting in front of a computers 8 hours straight in a climate-controlled office, followed by a stressful car ride through crowded streets and limited interaction with a small part of our family.

So, what might this optimistic vision look like?

I envision humans living in a new equilibrium with nature once more. We return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for which we are biologically optimized but update it with the current state of technology. We use artificial intelligence to run the tasks that are still necessary to keep our society, healthcare and global communications running. We implement interfaces that directly link us to nature and all living organisms on the planet forming a shared noosphere. We refocus on our core human features: sharing stories in small networks and circles of friends and family and exploring our environment through physical interaction. Within this shared equilibrium between humans and nature we implement nanobots to maintain our bodily health and combat diseases.

In short: we evolve into a sort of high-tech elves residing in the cloud.