Future Imperfect: Why We Must Not Fear Innovation or the Unknown

How technology and innovation drive human progress.

Scarcely a day passes by without one hearing of a new techno-bogeyman lurking in the wings, waiting to tear apart the fragile fabric of society. From anti-tech doomsayers like Evgeny Morozov to the less nuanced, more rapacious talking heads on nightly news, it appears as though techno-pessimism grips every facet of our lives. We are told to fear the future, for it brings unknowable terrors and an uncertain role for humans. Robots are taking all the jobs; artificial intelligence is likened to summoning demons we cannot control; a new class of digerati is taking the world’s wealth, leaving the rest of humanity behind in economic stagnation. Stop the progress! That is the techno-pessimists’ hue and cry.

But what does it profit humanity if we, at this singular moment in time, proclaim the end of historical progress to be necessarily at hand? What if our pre-industrial ancestors had maintained that, in fact, their moment in history was where progress ought to end? Where would that have left future generations of humans? Where will we leave our descendants if we embrace such a cult of stagnation? Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Nineteenth Century British poet laureate, offers some insight.

In his epic work Ulysses, Tennyson details the tale of the Ithacan King Ulysses who, having long since returned home from his odyssey of Homeric legend, finds himself tired of the monotony that now plagues his life. Sitting by his fire, thinking of past exploits, he laments:

It little profits that an idle king,
 By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
 Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
 Unequal laws unto a savage race,
 That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Now old and frail, no longer braving the struggles that defined his younger days, he can naught but reflect. All glory is lost, and what remains slowly fades into memory. But the essence of the poem is not bound in Ulyssey’s present despondency; the true focus is on his future. Similarly, the present disputations surrounding emerging technologies and humanity’s prospects for the future seem correspondingly tied to reflections on the past.

Though it seems tautological to portend that the future will be imperfect, if history has been any guide it is still likely to be remarkable compared to the present. So ought we to rejoice in the knowledge that we can only say we are uncertain of the future? Or ought we lament and make every effort to steer it towards a predefined outcome? Is the future permitted by default, or must we ask for approval before innovating further? To inform our outlook, a brief overview of human progress might prove beneficial.

In The Beginning …

Among the greatest achievements of humankind occurred some ten millennia ago when our ancestors made the transition from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life to one of settled, agricultural existence. The social transformation undergirding this lifestyle change cannot be overemphasized: where previously, necessity and survival were the lodestars guiding human endeavours, it thereafter became necessary to establish institutions and cultural norms that addressed the new ways of interpersonal interaction. Foremost among these institutions was the emergence of property rights, which formed the foundation of civilized life. The end result was the establishment of the state and the movement from a Society of Status to a Society of Contract.

In early state-based societies, the values and norms that emerged were dictated by status. In such societies, individuals were recognized and valued according to the proportion of force they, or their associated group, could wield. As Isabel Paterson points out in The God of the Machine, nobody has any rights in a Society of Status. “The individual is not recognized; a man is defined by his relation to the group, and is presumed to exist only by permission.” This has been the defining mantra for much of human history. It is only in recent times that these principles, on the whole, have been reversed.

Prior to the eighteenth century, human economic and technological progress could be generally characterized as a slow, incremental process of laborious invention and piecemeal, marginal technical improvements. Social norms often dictated extremely limited acceptance of new ideas and those that achieved adoption were more often than not employed largely for the benefit of, and monopolization by, the rulers of the state. Then, around 1750 AD, humanity experienced a social transformation on par with that of those early hunter-gatherers eschewing their spears and furs for hoes and burlap tunics: the advent of steam power and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

The Anfractuous Feedback Loop

Technology is a complicated concept, but at its core it is a physical manifestation of human intellectual expression — it is a corporeal extension of our capacity to think and reason. If culturally-induced fears of the unknown or the heavy hand of the state limit the expression of the human mind, progress is stifled. Those societies defined by tolerance, openness to new and eccentric ideas, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty with optimism, flourish. Free societies, scientific and technological knowledge, and economic growth are reflections of one another and their interplay produces an anfractuous feedback loop of human progress.

The primary mechanism for unleashing energy in agricultural and monarchical or feudalistic societies was the labour of individuals. The Industrial Revolution altered this relationship forever; where previously human toil defined the extent of a civilization’s energy output and advancement, technologies like the steam engine now served as the prime mover in human economic progress. Much like our ancestors had to redefine their relationships with one another, as well as nature, upon their acceptance of settled civilized life, so too have modern peoples been compelled to redefine their associations with technology.

Fast forward to the Twentieth Century. We now find ourselves living in times of unprecedented abundance — a remarkable achievement for mankind given our long history of teetering between subsistence and starvation. With exceptional brevity, Peter Thiel summarized this entire historical development in his recent book, Zero to One:

New technology has never been an automatic feature of history. Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others…Then, after 10,000 years of fitful advance from primitive agriculture to medieval windmills and 16th-century astrolabes, the modern world suddenly experienced relentless technological progress from the advent of the steam engine in the 1760s all the way up to about 1970. As a result, we have inherited a richer society than any previous generation would have been able to imagine.

In fact, where the history of human and technological advancement really gets interesting is right around this time. On October 29, 1969, Robert Taylor, the head of the information processing office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), established the first ARPANET link between the University of California-Berkeley and the Stanford Research Institute. In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, permitting the National Science Foundation to “support access by the research and education communities to computer networks which were not used exclusively for research and education purposes, thus permitting NSFNET to interconnect with commercial networks.” This was the birth of the commercialized Internet that we know today.

The Internet was, and remains, among the most significant innovations in human history, on par with, if not superseding, both the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions. It has begun reshaping the relationship between individuals and the powerful institutions that have, for millennia, governed human relations. From Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak to the NSA surveillance revelations recently publicized by Edward Snowden, individuals are more empowered than ever thanks to technology. Anonymous and WikiLeaks, love them or hate them, are changing the world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a mere 15 or 20 years ago, and are examples of a new breed of institutions: Post-Government Organizations. The advent of the Internet has spawned organizations that have a manifestation in, and effects on, the real world, but which are operational only because of the network connections made possible by cyberspace. If technological historian and economist Joel Mokyr is right that all technological revolutions “have a character of rebellion against cultural authority and the canon,” then we are embodying the essence of that revolt every time we use the Internet.

In a very short amount of time, the Internet and Post-Government Organizations have begun contributing to a world that is changing every hour of every day. That, for many people, is a scary proposition. Surely it is imperative to balance optimism, expectations, safety and security, and a desire for economic, social, and technological progress in the face of such upheaval. How then do we respond to the challenges facing us in this new world?

Like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, humans strive to seek a better world, ill content with the notion that we must accept what is by forsaking what could be. It is, as Ulysses notes, a dismal affair to remain still.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
 To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

There are, to be sure, concerns over potential harms that could be provoked by rapid change. The trouble is that we simply do not know how to steer clear of all potential troubles in order to maximize the benefits of progress. Often it must be left for the common law and torts to reconcile new harms and assign liability accordingly. Although the charting and planning of the future by technocrats might seem to be an alluring alternative, it often goes overlooked that they, like the rest of us, are mere humans. They have no access to crystal balls capable of piercing the fog of uncertainty that encapsulates the future. The question that remains, then, is whether we grant the state the power to curtail innovation and to permit only those advancements that technocratic regulators approve of to emerge from bureaucratic limbo.

Who decides what innovations are permitted? Who is better equipped to handle the disruptive impact of new technologies? Is it the state, or the individual?

Permissionless Innovation vs Precautionary Regulation

We are living in a period of disruption that, in past times, would have occurred over generations, if not centuries, and the changes we will endure will be difficult, much like those borne in previous eras. But this is the nature of our modern world. As Virginia Postrel wrote in her prescient 1999 book The Future and Its Enemies, we can either embrace dynamism, the expression of an ever-changing world marked by the human capacity for adaptability and progress, or we can default to stasism, the view that things are good enough and a future of possibilities is not worth sacrificing for the certainty of the present. Certainly the choice seems clear. After all, everything our species has achieved has been possible precisely because of our discomfort with the present state of affairs, leading us to glean a vision of a better future.

The driving force for the pace of technological change witnessed in the recent past has been our society’s willingness to embrace permissionless innovation. If innovators require license or permission before embarking on new and exciting experimental endeavours, entrepreneurship and innovation would slow to the pace of a molasses-drenched snail’s crawl. This is the essence of precautionary regulation, the principle that potential disruptions must be addressed by regulating innovations ex ante, and the antithesis of permissionless innovation.

If embarking on new voyages requires prior assurances of limited or no disruptive consequences to society, it establishes a burden of proof that can only be met by specious speculation about future events. If driverless cars, commercial drones, medicinal nanomotors, or any other potentially life-changing and life-saving emerging technologies are tied up in bureaucratic red tape before coming to market it is possible, and quite likely, that many innovations will never see the light of day. The desire to push the limits of what is possible is a hallmark of the human condition, but if no one can meet the burden of unmasking the shrouded veil of the future, new frontiers will never be discovered, new technologies never brought to fruition, and visions of a better world left unformed.

Tennyson’s Ulysses shows us the way. Not content to merely reflect on the heroism of his epic past, nor rest his laurels on days of glory quickly fading into myth, he resolves to seek adventure anew, and seeks no one’s permission in the process.

Come, my friends,
 ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
 Push off, and sitting well in order smite
 The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds
 To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
 Of all the western stars, until I die.
 It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
 It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
 And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

He knows there are no guarantees of fortune or fame, no promises of safety along the way, and no certainty of reaching those “Happy Isles”: there is only a glimmer of a possibility — a flicker of a hope — that safe shores wait at journey’s end. There is no certainty of success, only the assurance that if nothing is risked, nothing is gained.

In the Wake of Things Yet to Come

Our species is resilient. We labouriously wrenched ourselves out of the muck and mire of unicellular existence in an extremely harsh primordial ooze; we survived multiple mass extinctions; and we have, through the most unbelievable of journeys, finally reached a stage of development where we actually have the luxury of taking pause to ponder whether the progress that has brought us such comfort and ease was, in fact, worth it at all. We now stand on the cusp of a world where we are seriously beginning to ponder the possibilities of a post-scarcity society, where all is abundant and few find themselves in want.

Marc Andreessen asks us to imagine a world in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers. His response?

Since our basic needs are taken care of, all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. … Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be. The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.

Even if one believes Mr. Andreessen to be too optimistic, surely we can still consider his imagining of a better world to be representative of the best that technology has to offer us. After all, humans are unique in our creativity, reasoning, and ability to imagine the world as it might be, not merely as it is. Peter Thiel would likely agree, and points out that we “are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology. … Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalog of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” But those technologies can only find their way into the world if we permit people to innovate by default. We must embrace permissionless innovation and the broad freedom that has elevated humanity to our modern heights.

The future is an undiscovered frontier, masked in a haze of uncertainty; it comes as no surprise that people would view this sea of fog with skepticism, recoiling at the thought of embracing the unknown. But the future cannot be kept at arm’s length for long, and as it unfolds, the dynamism that has thus far characterized human intellectual, technological, and economic progress will not stall on the desire for, as Max Weber once characterized it, “the authority of the eternal yesteryear”; nor will clamoring for the sustainment of the present insulate those who long for motionlessness in human affairs. Disruptive change is upon us. How we deal with it is left to us, but one thing is certain: We cannot stop the future from unfolding.

As Tennyson’s epic concludes, Ulysses offers us a final lesson as he embraces the burdensome challenges of uncertainty that lie before him. The future, he knows, is indeed an unknown frontier, but he knows his willingness to persevere is strong enough to carry him through the worst of it.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
 We are not now that strength which in old days
 Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
 One equal temper of heroic hearts,
 Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
 To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Originally published at capx.co on February 8, 2015.