The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn't the Answer to Everything

The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn't the Answer to Everything

The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn't the Answer to Everything

The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn't the Answer to Everything

Synopsis

The rapid developments in technologies -- especially computing and the advent of many 'smart' devices, as well as rapid and perpetual communication via the Internet -- has led to a frequently voiced view which Nicholas Agar describes as 'radical optimism'. Radical optimists claim that accelerating technical progress will soon end poverty, disease, and ignorance, and improve our happiness and well-being. Agar disputes the claim that technological progress will automatically produce great improvements in subjective well-being. He argues that radical optimism 'assigns to technological progress an undeserved pre-eminence among all the goals pursued by our civilization'. Instead, Agar uses the most recent psychological studies about human perceptions of well-being to create a realistic model of the impact technology will have. Although he accepts that technological advance does produce benefits, he insists that these are significantly less than those proposed by the radical optimists, and aspects of such progress can also pose a threat to values such as social justice and our relationship with nature, while problems such as poverty cannot be understood in technological terms. He concludes by arguing that a more realistic assessment of the benefits that technological advance can bring will allow us to better manage its risks in future.

Excerpt

Now is a time of both great optimism and great pessimism about technological progress. Our technologies are becoming more powerful. The apparent acceleration of this improvement has led to forecasts of colonies on Mars and cures for cancer. But the increase in the power of our technologies seems also to be increasing the magnitude of their messes. The technological errors of past generations might bring crop failures or military defeats. The errors of our current global civilization threaten human extinction. During the Cold War we lived in fear of nuclear apocalypse. The turn of the millennium saw this fear joined in the popular imagination by climate change, a potentially catastrophic legacy of the Industrial Revolution.

This book seeks to take the long view of technological progress. My focuses are not the consequences—good or bad—of particular technologies, but rather overall trends in the effects of technological innovation on human societies. The concept of subjective well-being, an increasingly important focus of work in psychology and policy studies, serves as my navigational guide. Put simply, the book’s central question is: How should we expect technological progress to affect human well-being? We must look past the welter . . .

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