The Cloud and The Land
Should we accelerate hard into a tech-fuelled future? Or act now to apply the brakes?
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A judge dismissed the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Facebook this week. Half my Twitter timeline celebrated; the other half were appalled.
That polarised response fuelled this week’s reflections on what many say is an increasingly urgent question.
Should we do everything we can to accelerate the pace of technological advance? Or act now, via regulation, to apply the brakes?
This was a good week for Facebook. A longstanding suit by the Federal Trade Commission claimed the tech giant constitutes a monopoly in social media, and sought to force a sale of WhatsApp and Instagram. But Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the FTC had failed to support that claim; he threw the suit out. Facebook’s stock jumped four per cent on the decision, taking its market cap above $1 trillion for the first time.
It’s just one set piece in the ongoing confrontation between Big Tech and those who would regulate it. But the polarised reaction it generated taps into a much broader idea, and one we’re all becoming familiar with.
That is, that the defining political dichotomy in the 21st-century will not be between plain old conservatives and progressives, but between a new species of those two familiar designations. It will be, according to this argument, between tech progressives and tech conservatives. The VC and techno-philosopher Balaji Srinivasan puts it another way. The division that will do most to shape our collective lives in the decades ahead, he says, is between ‘the cloud and the land’.
There are those who say we should accelerate as hard as possible into our tech-fuelled future. They are the tech progressives. Meanwhile, there are those who want to hit the brakes via far-reaching regulation; they are the tech conservatives. According to Srinivasan, soon enough we’ll all find ourselves having to choose between those two positions.
I’m not so sure. I don’t doubt that technology will play a supremely important role in what lies ahead. But the idea that the choice we face is best characterised as one between tech acceleration and tech constraint seems to me to be based in a hollow view of our shared future.
Technology is not an end in itself. It doesn’t matter, in itself, whether there will be more or less advanced technologies in the years ahead. What matters is us and our lives. What matters is human wellbeing. And what we need right now is not a choice between lightspeed-fast or slow and regulated technological innovation, but between competing visions of the human Good Life.
It’s those visions that we currently lack. And that accounts for the essential emptiness of so much talk about the future we are heading towards.
This truth is of particular relevance to those who want to argue for the cloud side of this argument.
If those who seek unhindered technological acceleration want to persuade others of their view, it’s incumbent upon them to construct a compelling vision of the human future that this will lead to. And because they advocate revolutionary change, the burden of proof they face is greater than it is on those who seek to regulate technology in order to preserve currently existing ways of life and social structures.
People, understandably, tend to default to what they know. If you propose radical change, you have to convince them it will be worthwhile. That’s always been the challenge for political progressives, and it’s no different for the technological progressives of the 21st-century. The accelerationists of 2021 are great at telling us that we need faster technological advance. They say less about what, exactly, we should advance towards.
The tech-utopians of the early web did make some attempt at a coherent vision of an alternate, better future. Manifestos such as the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace imagined a world of decentralised power and radical individual empowerment. That future hasn’t arrived yet. Maybe it’s still ahead of us.
But where are the equivalent visions for the 2020s? Both fiction and nonfiction have produced many tech-fuelled dystopian visions in recent years. We are in great need of credible, compelling visions of tech-fuelled utopias. Or, at least, of futures radically better than our own. Where are these depictions of hyper-technological futures of abundance, happiness, and purpose? Of a world in which even the poorest have a standard of living as good as that enjoyed by the middle class in the Global North in 2021?
I don’t want to choose between cloud and the land in the 2020s. Those who frame the choice that way are dangerously close to telling us that in the decades ahead we can have technological advancement or something that resembles human life as we know it, but not both. Instead, I’d like warp-speed acceleration towards a future of amazing technologies deployed to enrich human wellbeing. Too much to ask?
Don’t get me wrong: those who seek, always and necessarily, to constrain technology are just as wrongheaded as those who see its advance as an end in itself. Across the last 400 years, technology has done so much to make the world a better home for humans. And there’s so much further left to go. In the 21st-century new technologies – including a near-infinite supply of clean energy – could take us there. We should seek technological advance.
First, though, we need to know what we want. Let’s start imagining.
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David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.