By Louis Fourie
I recently watched the 1997 American comedy film “For richer or poorer” about the Sexton millionaire couple that had to flee from the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after tax fraud of $5 million (currently R75m) committed by their accountant.
They ended up in Pennsylvania amongst an Old Order Amish community where they were deprived of all modern technology and came to appreciate what is really important in life.
This reminded me of a very interesting bet that took place between a technophile executive editor and a Luddite-loving doomsayer a little more than 25 years ago.
The historic meeting between Kevin Kelly, technology optimist and executive editor of Wired, and the author Kirkpatrick Sale took place just after Sale published his book Rebels against the future in which he tells the story of the 19th-century Luddites and their fierce opposition to the technology of the Industrial Revolution.
Sale adored the Luddites and have for many years pleaded in his books for a return to a subsistence economy and firmly believed that information technology would make human life worse. With the Amish he believes that technology has a negative impact on work since it steals labour opportunities from people. Similarly, he considers the printing press as destroying forests.
Based on the history of numerous civilisations that have collapsed, Sale believed that society was on the verge of collapse within a few decades and that the surviving humans would live differently by forming small, tribal-style clusters and living totally off the grid.
According to Sale the collapse of society would be evident by 2020 through an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless and cause a serious depression; a rebellion of the poor against the wealthy; and a significant number of environmental catastrophes.
Throughout his life Sale has urged people to return to a pre-industrial life of simplicity. Even since attending Cornell University he distrusted computers as was evident from a sci-fi musical he co-wrote about escaping a dystopian America ruled by IBM and an evil computer.
Influenced by the environmental movement he advocated for decentralised, self-sufficient systems or life organised at the “human scale.” Sale increasingly condemned progressive civilisation and worshipped an idyllic simple life.
Then he published the provocative Rebels book in which he elucidated his Luddite theory on the collapse of civilisation. During TV interviews he even became known for smashing “evil” used computers.
Kelly believed the total opposite and considered technology as an enhancing force that would allow society to flourish in the future. It was he who has built Wired to the leading magazine representing the surge of innovative technology and the Internet, as well as a techno-optimistic way of thinking. There is no doubt that Technology would solve the problems of the world in future.
His deep appreciation of technology was born out of his journey to the remotest parts of Asia that were often still captured in medieval architecture, clothing, beliefs, culture and behaviour. He became a computer enthusiast and relished the connection it offered to various communities. There is no doubt that technology and modern industry would improve the lives of all people.
It is thus understandable that Kelly was deeply offended by Sale’s Rebel book and decided on an intellectual bet after he read about how Julian Simon in 1980 challenged biologist Paul Ehrlich on impending resource scarcity. Kelly thus made a $1000 bet with Sale that in 2020 the world would not be close to the collapse as so vividly described by Sale.
It is important to remember that in 1995, when the bet was made, Amazon was less than a year old, Apple experienced some difficulties in growing, Microsoft was still to launch Windows 95, and almost nobody had a mobile phone.
Twenty-five years later at the end of 2020 Sale’s deadline arrived. The world is locked-down due to a devastating pandemic with dire economic consequences; income equality is at its worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s and numerous disasters have hit various parts of the world.
William Patrick, the editor of Sale and Kelly’s books, had to determine the winner on December, 31, 2020 by taking a judicial stance. But it is about much more than just a $1000 bet. It is about two opposed views about the nature of technology and progress.
Technology is progressing exponentially, but can we still be optimistic about technological progress in a time of dramatic climate change, melting ice caps, raging fires, natural disasters, extreme capitalism and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor?
In January 2020 Sale published a book about the “Collapse of 2020” conceding that he was wrong with regard to the collapse of civilisation, but shortly after the publication of the book the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic with a ravaging effect on health and economy, a destabilisation of democracy in many countries, and extreme weather conditions. Could Sale’s predictions at least be close to reality?
Patrick, therefore, very carefully evaluated the three conditions:
Economic failure: Sale predicted that the dollar and other accepted currencies would be worthless in 2020. However, the dollar and other major currencies were still going strong. Stock exchanges recovered after the major March decline and were at record highs, and crypto currencies such as Bitcoin became a huge success.
Global environmental disaster: Kelly argued that most people are still continuing with lives as usual despite global warming and climate disaster. However, Patrick decided that with huge fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; increasing bugs and diseases; melting ice caps and polar bears without a place to go; the worst hurricane season and warmest year in recorded history; it was hard to dispute that the world was at least relatively close to global environmental disaster.
The war between rich and poor: Sale quotes devastating statistics in his book to illustrate the growing inequality in most countries. Although economic reforms reshaped some countries, there is growing social unrest in the world as is evident from the massive protests such as those by nationalists and Black Live Matters (BLM) protesters.
Although it seemed to be a draw between Sale and Kelly, Patrick considered the fact that Sale called for a convergence of the three disasters. This did not happen and thus Kelly was the winner of the bet.
Unfortunately, although we saw wonderful technological innovations and progress in 2020, it does not offer a clear verdict of civilisation’s fate or what will happen in the next few decades. Perhaps the solution does not lie in any of the two extreme viewpoints honoured by Sale or Kelly, but somewhere in-between.
Sale and “Luddites” ignore the numerous benefits of technology and computers such as the major contribution of artificial intelligence in the developing of Covid-19 vaccines. The resourcefulness and creativity of the human race that could save the world from disasters and collapse should not be underestimated.
On the other hand, Kelly and techno-positivists are often blind to the reckless use of power by the large corporates. The large tech companies often create more societal problems than solving them due to their focus on profit at all costs. To believe that technology will solve all the world’s problems; eradicate all poverty; elevate all people to a middle-class lifestyle; slow down global warming through renewable energy; lengthen all human life; and lead to an overall decline in war; is over-optimistic and a simplistic approach to the complexity of the world.
Great technological innovation could bring overall progress in human civilisation, but as humans we must be careful that modern technology does not destroy the fabric of our civilisation, our humanness or our relationships.
Never in the history of humankind has humanity progressed technologically at the current exponential rate. Repeated technological revolutions have transformed the economy and society at an increasing velocity of disruption, making the anticipation of the impact on society very difficult. These revolutions were characterised not only by new technologies, but also by important social transformations, as well as shifts in power systems.
Over the years of human existence, technology has permeated human culture and now touches almost every single aspect of our lives. It influences our ethics, values, decisions and faith. Unfortunately, we often uncritically embrace technology. The development of autonomous technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous cars, and military weapons that decide whom to attack, redefine the human–technology relation and its moral dimension regardless if we are realists, phenomenologists or relativists. Proper analysis of the impact of each technology is, therefore, needed.
Technology can be the engine of economic development or the source of remedies for all kinds of diseases, but it can also be a danger to our natural environment or the cause of more superficial interpersonal relations. Unfortunately, technology is never free from a cultural, political and hermeneutical context and is at a deeper level thus also not free from preconceived values and rationality.
It is clear that technology has the power to either build or destroy society in future. Since the fate of our technological world is in our hands, it is important to remember that technological choices are often really decisions about the kind of society we want to build. Let us tread carefully.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites
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