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All Big Ideas in Tech

BIT – Week 3 – Optimism

In class, we drew a spectrum, from complete optimism to pessimism about what various figures in technological history thought computers could do for society. Now, since computers & society are so closely intertwined, we’re more discussing the human character—using computers is just an extension of what we’d do with any other technology (e.g. printing press, atomic bomb) or without.

Fear, despair, and pessimism are terrible long-term motivators. That’s not to say they can’t motivate—feeling like politics is going downhill → canvassing for candidates → happy Election Day!—but a life lived in fear, working against terrible things happening, is not an inspiring one. So much of American politics right now is anti- narratives (“Trump is bad”), or narratives of literally going backwards (“make America great again”). Most of the best narratives that get people going (AOC, etc) are justice narratives—something bad is happening (children in cages), let’s fix it. The majority of candidates, across parties, are failing to communicate any real vision of what their ideal worlds look like, and I think it’s hampering our political ambitions on both sides. The last time a significant politician really used a narrative of hope was Obama—even if all that hope & change didn’t fully pan out, he got elected twice.

(Credit to conversations with Zach Latta for developing some of these ideas.)

The Green New Deal, to me, is one exception, or at least could be, if the media narratives weren’t so tragically twisted. The Green New Deal is a proposal of major societal changes in response to climate collapse, re-architecting our economy and physical logistics of energy, transportation, etc in various ways. Personally, the Green New Deal is one of very few major pieces of potential legislation that get me truly excited for the future. Yes, it’s ambitious, even if it’s still not enough. But it gives us an opportunity, if we think about the problem the right way, to go somewhere big, bold, and better.

Two things are clear right now: the current path toward the future is bleak in many ways (climate collapse, automation, politics, etc), and that we have more knowledge/resources/money/intelligence than ever. Turning to merely narratives of justice or anti- narratives can be appealing, especially in dark times. But I think the time has come for truly hopeful narratives. We can build the future we all want, a fair society that cares for its people & in return its people can all contribute to improving the society. Honestly, it’s ridiculous that we’re not there already, and we’re instead stuck in these sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, colorist, classist times. We have the money, the innovations, the ideas, and the people to build a better society. Computers are no answer to these problems, even if they’ll help. Let’s get excited again, excited about a future of inclusion, of equity, of advocacy. And let’s build that future. It’s foolish not to.