The Eschatology of Technology
The time for complaining is over; the time for solutions is now
There’s fundamentally a strong element of hope to all technology that deserves to exist. Our culture is obsessed with technology and innovation for its promise of improving the world, and solving the enormous number of serious problems we face now and in the decades and centuries ahead.
Under no circumstances should this ever be ignored or discounted. The vision of hope provided by technology is of utmost importance. The idea that tomorrow will not be dramatically worse than today, that there is something worth getting up and out of bed for in the morning, something worth working toward, something that can be done that will matter, is among the most important, if not the most important thing in a functioning society.
In our modern secular society, this problem is no longer primarily solved by a religion that promises a second coming of Jesus, judgement day, or even just the promise of individual heaven. We instead rely on our modern religion of technological and material progress. However, with the mistakes and misjudgements that have been made over past couple centuries, with environmental and societal crises, for many this narrative is falling apart and being provided with no viable replacement.
Instead, we’re being told that the future is one where we will “own nothing and be happy”, which is both horrifying to many and extremely vague.
We must realize that externalizing the difficulties of technical problems by degrading the psychological stability of society is truly unacceptable. It’s one thing to harm the environment in a way that requires a herculean effort to fix. It’s another thing entirely to utterly destroy society’s collective willpower, the same willpower that is absolutely critical in accomplishing such an effort.
Love it or hate it, the primary selling point of crypto is not finance or get-rich-quick schemes. The true product that crypto sells is hope. In many ways it’s pretty lousy at doing this job, but the reason it’s gotten so big is because for many, better alternatives are non-existent.
Social justice in this regard is no different, and neither is the “drive solar-powered EVs, microchip your brain, and colonize the solar system” narrative that Elon Musk sells. These are all controversial in their own way, and trigger dystopian visions among their critics.
If most or all of these seem dystopian to you, it’s because they all are. To what extent each one is is perhaps debateable, and which one you prefer is undoubtedly dependent on your individual philosophy, but people have every right to be fearful of these kinds of futures, especially after digging into the details beyond simple surface-level promises.
Most of modern crypto ideology came out of the book The Sovereign Individual. In the late 90s, the book predicted a future of hyperinflation, increasing government corruption, the gig economy, massively widening inequality, ungovernable cryptocurrencies, deepfakes and fake news, remote work, and dozens of other things. Many of the predictions of the book have come true, and many others have yet to come true but seem to be well on their way.
While the book has some insightful and positive ideas here and there, it’s very hard to read this book without coming to the conclusion that the vision of the future it paints is anything less than dystopian. The book concludes that the inevitable future is one where, among other things, social safety nets become permanently unviable with no replacement, while kicking everyone with a sub-genius level IQ to the curb.
The enormous influence of this book on powerful players in silicon valley should not be understated; the preface of the newer editions is written by Peter Thiel after all. If you convince powerful people who are good at building something that a particular future is inevitable, they will often follow your script to the T and build exactly that, while never thinking twice about if there’s a better alternative that still has a positive place for most ordinary people.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
The current crypto crash should be deeply concerning. For many, this will be a time of deep questioning of deep beliefs. We should see this no differently than forcing a religious society to deal with compelling and unignorable evidence that their god does not care about them, or perhhaps does not even exist. They must confront the fact that their whole life may be a lie. There are very few ways in which this can end well.
Complain all you want about the utter stupidity of many crypto projects, but it fills a role that is critical for society to function; giving people hope and meaning to their lives. It does an alarmingly poor job at this, but it succeeds as well as it does because it does a better job for many people than anything else anyone has suggested.
It has been so successful and raked up trillions in investments is because the bar for a hopeful vision of the future is low. Really low. Dig your way down to the deepest levels of hell and you’ll still have a long way to go.
If your response to crypto is simply one of outright dismissal, of unsympathetic shadenfraude for the people losing their livelihoods from this crash, you aren’t contributing positively to the world no matter how right you are about the tech and how well it accomplishes what it claims. Because you’re completely missing the point. It’s not about the tech, it’s about the hope that the tech provides. This is not a problem we can afford to ignore. All reasonable people recognize that ending fossil fuel usage before transitioning to an alternative would utterly destroy society; destroying widespread eschatologies without offering an alternative is a deeper and more destructive problem, even if it’s not as widely acknowledged as such.
In the absense of a collective eschatology that permits meaningful individual action and compells people to work toward a common future, society can only crumble into chaos, creating even more problems for us to solve while rapidly diminishing our ability to do anything about them.
If you wish to complain about one of these dystopian visions of the future, as you very well should, the most important step you must take is to work toward offering a better alternative. This is hard, but is crucial. You can complain all you want about how serious environmental, geopolitical, economic, or social problems are, but destroying the psychological mechanisms we use to overcome such problems is the opposite of the right path.
The eschatology is the deepest layer of the stack of human social technologies. Without it, everything else falls. If you aren’t happy with the foundation, you better find a viable and compelling replacement it before you try to tear the old one out. Otherwise, you only will do far more harm than good no matter how right you are about the flaws.
This has been a free article for the Bzogramming newsletter, a newsletter mostly about an experimental new programming language that I’m building called Bzo. This article is admittedly more philosophical than technical, but it’s an important part of my thinking on these kinds of problems.
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