Pessimism v progress
Contemporary worries about the impact of technology are part of a historical pattern
Faster, cheaper, better—technology is one field many people rely upon to offer a vision of a brighter future. But as the 2020s dawn, optimism is in short supply. The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together. In the Arab spring of 2011 they were hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy. E-commerce, ride-hailing and the gig economy may be convenient, but they are charged with underpaying workers, exacerbating inequality and clogging the streets with vehicles. Parents worry that smartphones have turned their children into screen-addicted zombies.
The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Artificial intelligence (AI) may well entrench bias and prejudice, threaten your job and shore up authoritarian rulers. 5G is at the heart of the Sino-American trade war. Autonomous cars still do not work, but manage to kill people all the same. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry. At the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, internet giants have become the new banks, morphing from talent magnets to pariahs. Even their employees are in revolt.
The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom. “A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.” Except those words are from an article published in 1979. Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”.