Having just read the Guardian article ‘The tech utopia nobody wants‘ it occurred to me that laying the blame on the nerds was unfair. To some the idea of feeding the poor the artificial food stuff ‘Soylent’ in lieu of food stamps is a mark of a repellent future, just as there are people who rebel against the idea of Google glass becoming ubiquitous. The problem is not a problem with the technology though, the rapidly changing nature of technology merely highlights flaws that have existed in society since the enlightenment era began.
Certainly there are solid reasons to allow the developers of technology to have less control over our lives. Almost every piece of software I use has a feeling of being a beta version. Some software is released in permanent beta; much of the software we use is supposed to be a finished polished version but is far from perfect. Bugs and flaws are a common experience while we work on our computers; imagine if we had to put up with bugs and flaws in every aspect of our lives. In fact we do have bugs and flaws running through many aspects of our daily lives because so many things are based around very modern technology. The hidden pollutants and costs that frequently appear in our power sources, or the health problems caused by food additives are two examples of how technology exists throughout our lives and is not just the domain of silicon valley.
A very broad definition of technology would probably take in much more than the electronic world. Stephen Fry, who is known for his love of technology once gave the example of the lighter as being the most important gadget ever invented. We are so used to the lighter that we barely recognise it as something that hasn’t always existed, but almost everything around us is technology embodied. Go back a thousand years and the average person might only have owned half a dozen things. They would have had their clothing, which would have been barely more than what we might think of as a potato sack; they would have owned a bowl and maybe a knife; they might have owned a stool to sit on and a scraggy straw mattress to sleep on. Aside from that there were not a great many possessions for most people; they were lucky to own themselves. In the time since then technology has furnished almost everything around us.
When we live in what is arguably a tech utopia, or dystopia, already it cannot be fair to complain that the chaps in silicon valley are only now creating a tech utopia we don’t want. We have had it for years already. The complaint that it is only just happening now is simply fear of change.
However, it is not change in my view. It is more of the same that we have been getting throughout the last few hundred years. Many people are not happy and those who are happy are fully aware of reasons for the others to not be happy. My opinion is it all comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham was one of the most influential proponents of utilitarianism, which is basically the belief that the greatest happiness of mankind should be the ultimate aim of all effort. Naturally there are trade offs and under a strict utilitarian view it would be acceptable to sacrifice the happiness of the few in order to guarantee the happiness of the many. The cruelty of nature prevents more humanistic philosophies from being practical as we simply are not able to prevent all unhappiness, misery and harm.
Bentham’s philosophy has had a strong hand in the dominance of the free market system. According to the understanding of the free market we should be able to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people by allowing competition to bring prices down and increase efficiencies so that eventually everybody will be able to afford all the luxuries they could possibly wish for and live in nice warm houses with big screen TVs and plenty of food.
The flaw in this of course is glaringly obvious but often overlooked; the output of the free market does indeed make people happier but as anyone with the most basic understanding of physics can tell you:- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, matter and energy cannot be created from nothing, only transformed. There may be many other ways of saying it but essentially the free market doesn’t only create output, it also uses input. The output makes people happy but it is often very much overlooked how much the input can make people unhappy.
There are minorities who are unhappy about many of the effects of the free market; unregulated industries creating pollution and other environmental problems comes to mind immediately. Utilitarianism allows for the misery of the minority so long as the majority becomes happier; for this reason it takes a lot of impetus before many of the complaints against the free market are dealt with. Often the solution itself is an effect of the efficient operation of the free market in that customers deliver a message by altering their buying behaviour. There are many different and overlapping minority opinions that eventually become resolved in this way like direct democracy in action. There is an area where there seems to be an increasing problem that is being overlooked which offends against the principles of utilitarianism and the basis of why we wish to use a free market system – the input that is needed to create the output that benefits us.
When the original English economist Adam Smith travelled through Europe as a tutor he met the French economistes whose ideas inspired his later book, ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and kick-started our modern approach to economics. The economistes grew to be known as physiocrats as economics developed on account of their view that the wealth of nations depended upon the agriculture of the nation. It was agriculture that fed the horses and fed the men and thus allowed work to be done and allowed development to occur. Prior to this, wealth was largely considered to be how much gold and silver a nation possessed. Since those days, changes in technology have caused the wealth of a nation to be defined more by how much oil it can access. The more oil a nation possesses the more machines it can power and the more plastics it can manufacture. The majority of the input needed to create our output is therefore provided by oil fields and coal. The problem is that there is still a link in the chain that has more in common with the early days of economics when Smith was travelling through Europe. We may not make great use of horses anymore but production still relies a lot on people.
So while we take out all our products in the hope that we will create the greatest amount of happiness, we must still input our own efforts to produce them. We find we are not as happy as we wish because we are not producing enough wealth and enough products, and our solution is to streamline our processes, and become more efficient. We must work our factories harder and create more output in order to create this greatest amount of happiness. In theory this should work but it seems that at a most basic fundamental level the powers who oversee this process have overlooked the fact that the consumer is also the creator. The streamlining makes the overall amount of happiness decrease as men become automatons working in streamlined production lines, always aiming for greater efficiency. The reward for achieving greater efficiency is to be challenged to achieve even greater efficiency by the next appraisal.
Societal happiness decreases. The solution: push harder to be even more efficient.
This is not the approach in all nations of the world. Many countries and many companies are well aware of the absurdity of this approach, but often they only have this luxury while wealth is abundant.
To bring this blog around full circle to my beginning point I think one of the major complaints that can be levelled at a technological approach is that we have become so good at inventing and building machines and computers that we have forgotten that not everything runs like a computer. Our technology may be very advanced but our understanding of medicine, psychology, politics, and economics among other disciplines is nowhere near as advanced. Our mistake is to think that the lessons we have learnt in technology can be applied across all disciplines. The analogies do not work. Society cannot be run like a machine because the happiness we are aiming to create exists outside the physical processes of creation and consumption. Everyone is aware that as consumers we are not machines, but the thing that legislators seem to have forgotten is that as producers we are not machines either.