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A People Without History

From Margit Wennmachers on Andreessen Horowitz, explaining the direction of their new tech-splaining media venture:

Our lens is rational optimism about technology and the future. We believe that it’s better to be alive after the industrial revolution than in an agrarian society. I say this with conviction as I grew up on a pig farm! Living through a pandemic has not been fun at all, but try doing it without technology.

When someone attempts to coin their perspective on the world with words like “objective” or “rational”, you will see anything but. Just read the next few sentences after the mention of rational optimism:

We believe it's better to be alive after the industrial revolution than in an agrarian society.

Paired with the first sentence, there are two observed implications here:

  1. Only people that are rational would like to be alive today, or during the supposed “post-industrial revolution” (is it the same?). Thus, the skeptics, the people that are still searching for the benefits of our foundational technologies, the alienated, and the millions of people flat-out obliterated by technological progress are not included in club of those who are “rational”.
  2. The industrial revolution—or the “post-industrial revolution” that Margit believes is better than anything in the past—is its own era, separated from agrarian society. Wennmachers even complicates the bifurcation of these ages by the admission of growing up on a pig farm! How are we not still an agrarian society when huge swathes of the United States—let's not even consider the whole world right now—are apportioned to agrarian activities? What rationalism is used to deny the fact that 99.99 percent of the world is fed by agrarian society (That last .01 percent might be the undiscovered, living semi-nomadically within in the Amazon). Let me simplify what an agrarian society is: A society that asks that you to work for it or else you don't get fed—or at least we'll make it hell to feed yourself without working for us! No matter how many laptops and battery-powered pickup trucks you put on a farm, our society still survives on the “cultivation of the land” (In case you didn't like my pointed definition).

I came to Margit's announcement after running across a single sentence quote about “rational optimism”, but she filled the next few sentences with cognitively dissonant gold. I find techno-optimism to be a tragic phenomenon because its thinkers spend an enormous amount of useful energy thinking of ways to use technology to put out the fires of past technology, believing that what they're seeing is “progress” rather than the at-times literal wheel-spinning (electric vehicles anyone?). Techno-optimists are a people without a past, unmoored to the realities of what previous generations of similar perspectives have wrought against the health of the earth and the human spirit. They appear as patients of perpetual forgetfulness, clinging to a supposedly historical promise that “it'll get better”. And how? Well, technology feels like it's making our lives better, so I guess that'll be our buoy. And we see it with assertions like Margit's:

Living through a pandemic has not been fun at all, but try doing it without technology.

I can only be direct: A pandemic is impossible without technology. I know, our unmoored fortune tellers of the future cannot see the distant past, but before the internet, planes, ships, agriculture—technology as Margit might call it—the best human beings would have been able to do is an epidemic, and a highly localized one. If you want to argue the prowess of Western medicine compared to primitive treatments, you will find your argument hollow when indigenous people described the effectiveness of their own remedies. Sure, consider them wrong in the back of your head, but know that your “rationalism” only applies to your own constructed world of techno-optimism.

Soon the spirit of the indigenous people will die out, and you can erase the thousands of anthropological, archaeological, sociological texts depicting their enjoyment of a pre-agrarian, pre-industrial revolution society, but know that we human beings spent 3 million years doing fine without technology, and were not beset with the existential crises that we have run into repeatedly since we began and continue the agricultural revolution. We didn't have to tell ourselves with conviction that, after having grown up on a pig farm, we're past being an agrarian society.

You “rational optimists” of technology can only be so without the reality of humanity's history. The future can and will be made of optimism by applying a bit of skepticism on “technological progress” and a lot of our substantive learnings about the natural role of human beings on this planet. Spoiler alert: Technology won't be the future's defining character.