Tuesday, 16 August 2011


The last day of my holidays must be devoted to optimism - after all, on the very day it started, market collapses wrecked my peace of mind, and quite possibly the future I had imagined for myself. With the future so radically uncertain, optimism is indispensable.

Part of my holiday reading has been Kevin Kelly's 'What Technology Wants'. Kelly coined the term 'the technium' to describe the interface of human creativity and technology. He argues that the exponential emergence of the technium is nothing more or less than evolution accelerated.  And like evolution, the technium has its own inherent biases which will tend to influence how (and how fast) it evolves, although, of course, its evolution will also be subject to accident and, perhaps, some element of human constraint. Despite the title, the book is less about technology per se than about evolution. Technology, like just like humanity, is a process, or tendency, not an entity.

I highly recommend it, not least because of its underlying optimism. Right at the very root of the whole technology story is the thorough-going rejection of Malthusianism in all its forms.  The huge and wonderful irony about Malthus is that he formulated his wretched views at the precise moment when technology had finally achieved the sort of take-off speed which would prove him repeatedly, relentlessly and tirelessly wrong ever since.  For me it is a truism: if an argument is basically Malthusian, then it's certain to be wrong.

(Take, for example, the threat of 'peak oil'. I imagine that somewhere in the 17th century, there were a bunch of worriers fretting about 'peak charcoal', armed with forecasts of charcoal demand intersecting 30 years hence with the limit - the total possible forest-covereage of Britain, perhaps.  

Anyway, here's a cause for optimism - a passage by Julian Simon, former Uni of Maryland professor of business administration, quoted in the book:
These are my most important long-run predictions, contingent on there being no global war of political upheaval: 1) People will live longer lives than now; fewer will die young. 2) Families all over the world will have higher incomes and better standards of living than now. 3) The costs of natural resources will be lower than at present. 4) Agricultural land will continue to become less and less important as an economic asset, relative to the total value of all other economic assets. These four predictions are quite certain because the very same predictions, made at all earlier times in history, would have turned out to be right.
I wonder how many of these we have forgotten to believe?

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