Techno-utopians keep us ignorant of the past so we cannot see the future

Summary: A new industrial revolution has begun. Knowledge of previous ones can guide us, preparing us for its likely dynamics and showing us the political actions necessary to distribute it’s benefits. But the 1% are working against us, seeking to return us to the pre-New Deal era of inequality and profitable (for them) instability. Keeping us passive is the key to their success; keeping us ignorant is one way to do that.

Comet 's office of the future

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Contents

  1. The past helps us see the future
  2. The world of yesterday
  3. The world of tomorrow, emerging today
  4. Jeff Bezos shows us our high-tech future
  5. For More Information

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(1)  The past helps us see the future

The previous industrial revolutions produced great new wealth from increased productivity, but distributed only by politics:  collective action producing new public policy.

The future need not resemble the past, but it’s a likely scenario. The technopians, like Marc Andreessen (@pmarca on Twitter) vividly describe the wonders of the future, but actively deny the political action probably necessary to realize it. They’re brilliant, educated people. How could they ignore this history? The simple answer: they’re not stupid; they believe that we are stupid.

(2)  The world of yesterday

“Knowledge itself is power.”
— Thomas Hobbes’ Sacred Meditations (1597)

This works in reverse as well. Our amnesia shifts power from our hands to those of others. A people that have lost their past cannot learn, and so cannot prepare for the future.

The advent of the first two industrial revolutions produced great wealth, but concentrated in few hands — with massive unemployment and poorly paid workers in unsafe conditions. This resulted from policy, not happenstance, as the 1% bitterly fought efforts to change the Gilded Age political system and distribute the bounty of America’s material and technological riches.  This, plus a financial system run by and for the 1% (e.g., creditor-friendly deflation) produced incredible (and unnecessary) hardship accompanied by economic instability.

As a result America’s second industrial revolution started and ended with decade-long depressions (the Long Depression and Great Depression), with frequent use of violence to suppress workers (see this list of private and State violence against unions).

Due to our sanitized children’s history, Americans know little of our history between the Civil War and WW1 (other than the cowboys). We cannot see the sad real history behind our fables (e.g., see “Little Libertarians on the prairie“), let alone learn from it.

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Woman in the future

Change came only when the Progressive and New Deal reforms laid the foundations for the prosperity of the post-WW2 middle class.

(3)  The world of tomorrow, emerging today

Technopians confidently predict widespread prosperity, but omit the collective action that produced a happy ending in the past. They rely not just on our amnesia, but on propaganda: a religious-like faith in technological progress.  The parallels with past “opiates of the masses” are obvious.

It’s one of the oddities of our generation that we must spend so much time dealing with beliefs that future generations might find difficult to even understand. Such as American exceptionalism, libertarianism, and techno-utopianism.

While we shadow-box, Andreessen and his peers take us back to the future. A new Gilded Age rises around us; here are a few examples.

  1. The 2005 – 2009 illegal cartel suppressing wages, run by Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe.
  2. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society.
  3. For Thanksgiving, Walmart shows us the New America— Part time, no benefits, minimum wage wonderworld.
  4. Private equity firms strip-mine America: buy a company, cut r&d and capex, outsource labor to Asia and temp agencies, cut benefits, borrow every dollar possible, extract every dollar, sell it off — the wreckage becomes others’ problems.

(4)  Jeff Bezos shows us the future of high-tech America

Amazon shows us the future in many ways. E-monitoring of workers; every step, including time in the bathroom. Executives thinking every day about ways to prevent workers organizing for better wages and conditions. Extensive use of temp labor to break links between workers and their actual employers. An inspiring story of technology intelligently applied to destroy the middle class and benefit the 1%.

  1. Inside Amazon’s Warehouse“, The Daily Caller (the Lehigh Valley newspaper), 18 September 2011 — “Lehigh Valley workers tell of brutal heat, dizzying pace at online retailer”
  2. In the Wake of Protest: One Woman’s Attempt to Unionize Amazon“, The Atlantic, 12 December 2011
  3. I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave“, Mac McClelland, Mother Jones, March/April 2012 — “My brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine.”
  4. Amazon warehouse jobs push workers to physical limit“, Seattle Times, 3 April 2012
  5. Amazon unpacked“, Financial Times, 8 February 2013 — “The online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy?”. Amazon treats its workers like robots, making the future transition to robots easy.

(5)  For More Information

See the Reference Page listing all posts about The 3rd Industrial Revolution

Posts about the New America being built now:

  1. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society, 27 April 2012
  2. For Thanksgiving, Walmart shows us the New America, 19 November 2013

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8 thoughts on “Techno-utopians keep us ignorant of the past so we cannot see the future

  1. A few responses to your comments, if I may:

    “It’s one of the oddities of our generation that we must spend so much time dealing with beliefs that future generations might find difficult to even understand. Such as American exceptionalism, libertarianism, and techno-utopianism”

    Industrial revolutions have always been chaotic and bloody events. Large numbers of people find themselves on the very short and nasty end of a pretty brutal stick. This tends to breed a frantic stew of creative ideas that usually lead to disaster.

    The one way in which I strongly agree with your comment is that it is vastly easier and faster to spread new ideas and arguments than it was in the past and I suspect that this will make our current time even more unsettled than prior industrial revolutions.

    “Private equity firms strip-mine America: buy a company, cut r&d and capex, outsource labor to Asia and temp agencies, cut benefits, borrow every dollar possible, extract every dollar, sell it off — the wreckage becomes others’ problems.”

    This is dead-on accurate as far as it goes. Contrary to prior industrial revolutions, innovators and entrepreneurs are avoiding the stock market as much as possible to get the resources they need to build their dreams. Between the private equity firms destroying companies and entrepreneurs avoiding the stock market, the number of US publicly traded companies has fallen from 8,800 in 1990 to 4,900 at the end of 2012.

    I am not sure where this trend will go but it is probably not going to be a happy ending.

    “Jeff Bezos shows us the future of high-tech America”

    I can’t argue with your facts but I cannot agree with Bezos either. The terrible behavior on the employer’s part is eventually going to rebound on him. Creating such a toxic environment is so counter-productive to long-term profitability I can’t believe he’s doing this.

    Let’s do a thought experiment, let’s say that he not only succeeds, but that all other corporate overlords emulate him. Who is going to have the time or money to buy the goods that everybody is slavishly producing?

  2. I was chewing on the notion just this weekend that the US appears to be gradually transforming into something which is a strange combination of elements from both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” I realize that at least on the surface, this might not even seem possible since the two worlds of Big Brother and Ford are in many respects complete opposites of each other — the culture in which Winston Smith lives is gritty and dehumanizing, while that in which Bernard Marx lives is glossy and self-indulgent in the extreme. However, the fact remains that both cultures have the same ultimate goal in the end…maintaining a culture in which people are not only not free to ask questions of the ruling authorities but are being conditioned in such a way that it would never even occur to them to ask questions.

    All the wonderful opportunities which the new technological development has the potential to make possible belong to the world of Huxley, of course — to quote Lenina Crowne, “progress is lovely, isn’t it?” (In Orwell’s world, most technological development is focused on the war which destroys it almost as soon as it can be built…a particularly twisted form of planned obsolescence.) However, as has already been pointed out, there is reason to believe that the technological development in our reality is not intended to benefit many people outside the 1% — and not just in terms of investment returns and affordability of access, either. A fair amount of technological development that has been and is taking place within this country focuses on mass surveillance and non-lethal forms of crowd control (active denial systems, long-range acoustic devices, and the like) — and these most definitely belong to the world of Orwell rather than Huxley.

    Sadly, many Americans don’t realize any of this because they’re preoccupied with all the distractions with which we’re being increasingly bombarded in this culture thanks to other avenues of technological development. Most of these things — music, movies, television, sports, magazines, fashion, video games, celebrity gossip, etc. — require very little in the way of mental engagement. These things belong to both Orwell and Huxley — the only real difference is that in Orwell’s world, these distractions are referred to as “prolefeed” and are restricted to the people occupying the lowest tiers of society (in order to keep them pacified) while they’re virtually a mandate for everyone in Huxley’s world.

    Another one of the ironies of all this technological development — as I mentioned to a family member last week — is that understanding it requires a higher degree of education than was needed in the previous industrial revolutions, but the costs of such education are becoming increasingly prohibitive for those Americans (at least the ones who are actually interested in learning something). As I said to my relative, I’m definitely not a Luddite — but I’m definitely not as much of a technophile as I once was, and I sometimes worry that technology is taking us places we’re just not ready for yet on a social or ethical level.

    1. Orwell and Huxley intended for their books to be warnings against the types of societies they saw brewing 60+ years ago. For that reason, the books are required reading in high schools. But it appears that instead we have been training would-be autocrats in advanced thought control methodologies.

      This is sort of an inverted Star Trek phenomenon where a write thinks of something and somebody else thinks this is so cool that they have to make it a reality.

      All technology (or science or philosophy) is a two-edged sword, they are neither evil or good but contain the potential for both. I think of each technological advancement as a test of human maturity and wisdom. Are we smart and wise enough to use it well or will we further harm ourselves with it.

      Frankly, like you, I am nervous about the current fairly rapid pace of technological change and am terrified by FM’s call for much more rapid technological change ala the Victorian era. We are still sorting out the toxic results (social and environmental) of the last industrial revolution and are on the cusp of heading into another one.

      I tend to think of technology as the opportunity for the human race to earn a galactic Darwin Award but I am also hopeful. We ARE beginning to realize the damage we are doing to ourselves and our planet and we are dealing with it. We didn’t nuke ourselves during the Cold War.

      Perhaps I should restate my original theory, technology is not the opportunity to earn a galactic Darwin Award, it is Pandora’s Box. Yes, there are terrible problems but there is also hope.

      As for your final statement about technology taking us places we aren’t ready to go yet, how will we gain the maturity to handle such things? The only way I can think of is experience. Life is a roll of the dice, all we can do is to influence the situation so we have the best opportunity to thrive in the results. This has been true since the dawn of humanity and will be true until its end.

    2. Pluto,

      “current fairly rapid pace of technological change and am terrified by FM’s call for much more rapid technological change ala the Victorian era”

      (a) It’s not clear that the present pace of technological change is “rapid”. That’s an active debate among experts, probably unsolvable except from time. Certain the rate during the past 60 years is slow compared to 1970 – 1930 (see this brief explanation).

      (b) Looking at what’s possible over the next 50 years, I suspect most people (except the crazy techno-utopians) have worries. But we’re on the wild ride and cannot easily get off. This planet cannot support the current population at developed-nation levels — let alone the peak of 10 billion estimated by 2050 — with the current level of technology. We have to go forward, rapidly.

    3. Pluto,

      (c) “As for your final statement about technology taking us places we aren’t ready to go yet, how will we gain the maturity to handle such things?”

      Good question. I have no clue as to the answer. But our species is good at survival, at learning. This might be one of our greatest challenges, up there with the ice age and the explosion of Toba.

    4. Actually, it’s been my opinion for a while now that one way in which we might gain the kind of maturity that would help us become better equipped to face the future is — to return to my original example — literature.

      I know both from personal experience and from studying developmental psychology in school that humans do not necessarily need to experience something firsthand in order to learn something about it (although this does not diminish the value of firsthand experience). Humans also have the power to learn from example by means of observing the experiences of others secondhand or even thirdhand — and these others can potentially be fictional or imaginary. An ancient example of this concept would be the fables of Aesop or the parables of Jesus of Nazareth — both a series of short fictional stories intended to explain and help their audiences understand a particular moral or ethical principle. A more modern example would be the works of Charles Dickens, who worked as a journalist before becoming a novelist and whose books were an attempt to draw people’s attention to the issues faced by people living in poverty at that time (of which there were many, and which he himself had been as a child).

      Science fiction — which includes Huxley and Orwell, in my view — has the potential to take this one step further and (in a sense) allow us to x-ray Pandora’s Box so that we can at least get an idea of what might be in it before we open it. Speaking as someone who’s inclined to be a visionary, science fiction has always been something more than just entertainment for me — I also see it as a potential opportunity for humanity to explore different potential futures and examine some of the probable consequences of different scenarios so that we can (hopefully) avoid pursuing certain courses of action in which the outcomes are far more likely to be negative than positive. One example of this in action is “Threads”, a British post-apocalyptic movie from the 80’s (bleak and gritty in the extreme — “The Day After” looks like a day at the beach by comparison) which was televised and is believed to have single-handedly encouraged an increase in opposition to nuclear proliferation among the British. To use Pluto’s example, it’s quite possible that one of the major factors which prevented the US and the USSR from nuking the human race into extinction during the Cold War — and goodness knows that we came a little too close for comfort once or twice — was the creation and growth of the post-nuclear subgenre of science fiction which explored some of the probable consequences of nuclear war. People all over the world read stories such as “A Canticle For Liebowitz” or “On The Beach” and said on some level “no, this would not be good — not for me, not for my family, not for anyone. I don’t want this.”

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