Technology alone won't create a better world, unless we have the moral wisdom to use it well. However, the best point that techno-optimists make is that a bigger pie is easier to divide up, without having to argue over who gets what.
I think about how lucky we are that COVID-19 hit when it did.
Obviously, there’s never a good time for a global pandemic. The virus has killed as many as 25 million people, and more are still dying, even if the worst days are behind us. An unknown, but surely equally large, number of people have suffered severe illness and disability.
Going on four years now, the world has been reeling with pain and grief. Children were orphaned, spouses were widowed, and families were plunged into poverty by the loss of caregivers and breadwinners. At the height of the pandemic, hospitals were overwhelmed and doctors and nurses were driven to the point of exhaustion, burnout, even suicide.
Yet it could have been worse. If SARS-CoV-2 had jumped into humans in 1989 or 1999 rather than 2019, the death toll would have been much greater.
The RNA vaccines that have saved millions of lives are the culmination of years of scientific research. The basic idea goes back to the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that we found a way to tweak the structure of RNA to make it tolerable to the immune system. The SARS outbreak in 2002, although it was contained, accelerated research into coronaviruses in general. The two companies whose vaccines proved most effective, BioNTech and Moderna, were founded in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
It was a stroke of fortune that COVID-19 arrived when RNA vaccine technology was almost ready. All the pieces were in place, and the pandemic gave humanity the final push of urgency to get it over the finish line. If the vaccines hadn’t been available, it’s possible that the death toll would have been double what it actually is.
For the same reason, we’re fortunate that the pandemic happened when high-speed internet was ubiquitous. Thanks to that, millions of people were able to work or attend class or order groceries from home. That was a luxury of the privileged, to be sure. Even so, the more people who were able to do their jobs from home, the more we were able to slow the spread and flatten the curve of infection. If this pandemic had happened in the 1980s or 1990s, we would have faced a stark choice between total economic collapse and mass death.
What technology does and doesn’t do for us
Our response to COVID-19 is a point for the futurists who say that better technology will save us. In this view—call it strong techno-optimism—all our problems are fundamentally technological, not political. By making better robots, building plants to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, using genetic engineering to cure illness and death, and so on, we’ll solve the problems of the past and bring about a glorious transhuman future. This view is usually associated with Singularity believers and other ideological sects out of Silicon Valley.
In opposition to this, some skeptics espouse a view that humanity hasn’t advanced at all. They argue that improving technology brings about both greater good and greater evil, in quantities that exactly balance each other, so the net progress is zero. Authors such as Chris Hedges have argued for this bleak assessment.
Personally, I don’t identify with either of these factions, but I try to steer a middle way between them. The techno-skeptics get this point right: technology gives us greater power to do what we want, but it doesn’t tell us what we should want. Greater power by itself isn’t the solution, not if we don’t have the wisdom to use it.
Nuclear energy can make reactors that power cities or bombs that destroy them. Genetic engineering can make crops that are more nutritious and resilient to climate change, or it can be another tool of agribusiness corporations to trap poor farmers in debt slavery. Robots and AI can allow us all to work less and enjoy more leisure, or they can enable a handful of capitalists to pile up still more wealth at everyone else’s expense. Ubiquitous video cameras can allow citizen journalists to hold the powerful to account, or they can be used by the powerful to create a surveillance state out of Orwell’s nightmares.
It’s not inadequate technology that stands in the way of making the world better. We could already have a green-energy-powered solarpunk civilization, with universal health care and free housing and education and twenty-hour workweeks for all, if enough human beings wanted to organize society that way.
A bigger pie
However, the techno-optimists have a countervailing point: the bigger the pie, the easier it is to divvy it up. It’s true that we could have created a socialist utopia of equality at almost any point in history. But it’s also true that, the further back into the past you take as a starting point, the more sacrifice would have been required.
For example, automation has freed humanity from the toil of the pre-industrial era. Before mechanization, jobs like agriculture, mining and lumberjacking had to be done entirely by hand. It was brutal, backbreaking toil in dangerous conditions. Hardly anyone would volunteer for these jobs if they weren’t driven by survival. Now we have machines to help with the most arduous parts (although, of course, people still have to do some of this work, and the risk is lessened, not zero).
As another example, it’s only in the last few decades that clean energy has become cheap enough to be a candidate for the power source of the planet. Before that, we had no realistic alternative to coal and oil, with all the tanker spills, pipeline leaks, toxic smog, and other downsides they bring with them. We can light our homes and run our factories without paying the price in the form of wheezing children or poisoned groundwater.
Better technology has freed humanity from dilemmas like these. It allows us to make fewer hard choices about who assumes the risks and the burdens. When there’s enough food for everyone, we don’t have to ask who goes hungry so others can eat. When we have ample energy, we don’t have to ration it or decide whose needs outweigh others.
Skeptics are right to be concerned about the rich and the powerful seizing more than their fair share of economic growth. But the solution isn’t to stop technological progress. On the contrary, a shrinking economy makes the problem worse. In a zero-sum world, people will be more motivated to grab as much as they can for themselves—because if there won’t be enough for everyone, someone has to be on top, and why not me?
In a world that’s improving, people will be more inclined to trust that there will be enough for themselves and their children. The expectation of a more abundant future makes us all less greedy, less selfish, and more willing to cooperate.
Neither better technology nor better politics will save the world single-handedly. However, better technology and better politics can work together, in a positive feedback loop. Technology can liberate us from the hardest choices, and that makes it easier for people to work together to solve the ones that remain.