The Singularity of Fools: A Special Report from the Utopian Future
Rieff, David, Foreign Policy
GOOD BOOKS TRANSCEND their times; bad books reflect them. One reads Madame Bovary for its sublime writing and exploration of the human condition in all its tortuous complexity. But if you really want to understand 19th-century bourgeois France, you would be far better served by plowing through the literarily mediocre but historically informative novels of Gustave Flaubert's journeyman contemporary, Eugene Sue. What has always been true of literature is even more so with regard to nonfiction, especially by authors who claim to know what the future holds in store for us. The history of financial predictions made at the height of stock market booms is a well-known illustration, whether it was the great economist Irving Fisher insisting shortly before the crash of 1929 that stock prices had reached "a permanently high plateau" or the not-so-great economist Kevin A. Hassett heralding Dow 36,000--the 1999 book he wrote with James K. Glassman--a little more than a year before the dot-com bubble burst.
But financial manias pale (at least for those who have not bet their 401(k)s on such fanatically rosy assumptions) when compared with the techno-utopias that, at least since the middle of the 19th century, have periodically captured the collective imagination of the general public in the West--and today litter bookstores with their rah-rah optimism. Too bad few remember Cicero's tart observation that he did not understand why, when two soothsayers met in the street, both did not burst out laughing. But if the history of utopian fantasies has taught us anything, it is that people find it hard to accept the fact of their unreality, preferring instead to hew to their hopes, whether profound, as with Marxism, or preposterous (and commercially self-interested), as with the vision of the carefully ordered futuristic cities famously laid out for a receptive public at the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair--just as Adolf Hitler was about to blitzkrieg Poland.
If utopia has always been a kind of escape clause from the human condition, contemporary techno-utopianism represents a radical upping of the ante. For entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prize to spur the development of passenger-carrying private spaceships and other innovations, not only will technology make it so that "during our lifetime ... we're moving off this planet," but it will solve even the gravest problems that confront humanity--climate change, species extinction, water and energy shortages. For futurist Ray Kurzweil, "nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence" by 2030, making it possible to "go beyond the limits of biology, and replace [an individual's] current 'human body version 1.0' with a dramatically upgraded version 2.0, providing radical life extension."
Even comparative moderates in the futurological sweepstakes tend to swoon when the subject is the pace of technology-led change. Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Center for Civic Media, argues in his new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, that it is an entirely realistic goal for humans to "take control of our technologies and use them to build the world we want rather than the world we fear." The present moment, Zuckerman asserts in his book's concluding sentence, offers "an opportunity to start the process of rewiring the world."
In his own new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, cyber-utopianism's severest and most eloquent critic, Evgeny Morozov, has dubbed such grand assertions about the mastery that we, with or without the help of intelligent machines, can exert over the future of the species the "Superhuman Condition." (Full disclosure: I blurbed Morozov's book.)
Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, has described this mindset somewhat more understandingly, analyzing people's "growing desire to have technology oversee what once belonged exclusively to the province of the individual mind: man's capacity to judge. …