An approaching comet is going to annihilate the planet. Scientists know how to destroy it. What do we do? We don’t even look up. We don’t even react. We do as we are told by a Silicon Valley CEO – who is a mix between Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. That is, in a few words, a simplistic version of the movie – and now worldwide phenomenon – Don’t Look Up. Is that so different than what is happening today? Nothing is less certain. Did we already enter the realm of technological opiumism? Probably. Let’s talk!
Creating the next Google and saving the world are basically the same thing.” – Astro Teller
Thanks to advances in science and technology, we can improve individuals and society. That’s, in a few words, what technological utopianism is about. Meaning: thanks to new technologies, we do the good stuff like destroying a comet – and we make profit, but “that’s just a bonus.” Astro Teller, CEO of X (formerly known as Google X), Alphabet’s “moonshot factory” says nothing less: “Creating the next Google and saving the world are basically the same thing.” This mindset originates from the Bay Area in the context of the 1960s American counterculture and the advent of the information age, as shown by Silicon Valley expert Fred Turner. It gave birth to the so-called Californian ideology that “combines the freewheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.” The link between these two a priori antithetical movements is digital utopianism, i.e. the profound belief that the advances in science and technology will lead to a form of utopia.
However, according to some scholars, technological progress alone would not provide spiritual and philosophical transcendence. The uncertain future perceived from a technological point of view would seem frightening and infinite. French philosopher Michaël Fœssel points out that “the only eye on the past that can be comforting is the one that brings it back to the eventuality of future progress.” Individuals look to technological advances as a continuation with the past, overcoming the disenchantment and need for transcendence.
Technological utopianism fits perfectly this need. It brings us hope in a time of despair. Like a blanket, it brings us warmth when it’s cold outside. And we are grateful for that. But remember, a blanket does not provide a 400-square metre house with a swimming-pool. Even if the designer of the blanket told you so.
The worldwide spread of technological utopianism has turned it to a secular form of religious belief.”
“Religion is the opium of the people,” said Karl Marx. This has never been truer than today. The worldwide spread of technological utopianism has turned it to a secular form of religious belief. This faith in the saving power of technology anaesthetizes our responsiveness to societal and political issues, turning utopianism into opiumism. According to Leo Marx, the concept of technology itself has been “endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency. We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable.” Technology is leading us in a progressive direction, as exemplified in the painting of John Gast (1872), “American Progress.”
These new discoveries would be likely to solve the biggest issues humanity is facing, even the societal grand challenges, these “specific critical barrier(s) that, if removed, would help solve important societal problem with a high likelihood of global impact through widespread implementation.” Diverse institutions have formulated their societal grand challenges, like the United Nations with their 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Examples of these challenges are “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” “good health and well-being” but also “sustainable cities and communities” or “climate action.”
Many technological utopian actors like the Singularity University have seized these global challenges as a way to promote technological solutions. Technology is perceived as the solution addressing these major challenges, bringing about an improved, ideal society. Clearly, they are saying that the blanket will give you a 400-square metre house with a swimming pool, a tennis course, a view on the ocean and a French chef. Well, they bought it in Don’t Look Up. See how it turned out. Don’t mix pitching with social reality. Or if you do – and most of us do -, be ready to enter the technological opiumism age.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the position of ESCP Business School.