The Sceptical Optimist: A philosopher’s take on technological progress

In this interview Nicholas Agar, author of ‘The Sceptical Optimist’, talks about why unquestioning enthusiasm and a blanket rejection of technological change are equally misguided

N S Ramnath

We live in a polarised age. Across the world, many take strong positions on the dominant issue of the day, and scold others who differ from their stand. While this is most evident in political, social and religious topics, it’s equally intense with technology too.

On one extreme, there are technology optimists who believe technology can solve all problems, and on the other, there are Luddites, who like the English workers who went about destroying textile machinery back in the early 1800s, turn their angry gaze at every technological development. In between, there are many who don’t give much thought about the impact of technology, and go with the flow.

Nicholas Agar, who teaches ethics at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, uses the tools of philosophy to look at technological progress. At a time when many get attracted by the glitter of new technology, or get repulsed by the change it brings with it, very few take a long-term view on technological progress and put that in the larger context.

Yet, such a long-term view can offer valuable lessons to those whose life and career get impacted by technological change (which means everyone’s).

First, Agar encourages us to take a pragmatic view on technology—neither that of techno-optimists nor Luddites, but that of an informed customer. Approach it the way you would look at buying a house. Know what’s good, know what’s bad, and take a decision that works for you. Be a “sceptical optimist”, as the title of his book says.

Second, he implores us to takes the ideas of hedonic normalisation (that the baseline of happiness quickly adjusts) and replacement (what’s amazing for one generation is normal for another) seriously. They can offer valuable insights to those who are in the business of innovation.

And finally, he offers an interesting way to navigate this polarised age: More face-to-face meetings. This is an edited version of an interview that was done over Skype.

Q: Let’s start with sceptical optimism. Why that combination?

Scepticism and optimism are naturally opposed. I try to move away from simplistically optimistic approaches to technological change and progress; and also move away from unduly pessimistic approaches. When someone is offering a life change, say, a new car or new house, there are always pluses and minuses. If someone says here’s a new possibility for you and it’s only positive, then they are probably deceiving you. I was trying to get a balance.

Scepticism is really a central attitude towards anything you are offered. I want to support the view that searching for technological solutions to our problems is part of the human condition and it works. Just that sometimes, we overstate its significance and its importance.

We are often victims of a distorting take on technology

We are often victims of a distorting take on technology. Now, we have a lot of people talking about driverless cars, and they are talking about really exciting possibilities. International death toll of car crashes is massive. If we could reduce that by switching to driverless cars, that’s wonderful. But, we also need to recognise its limitations.

We now have a group of people, the radical optimists, who think all we have to do is to find a technological fix for all the problems that we have. Poverty? There is a technological fix. Poor people lack medicine; they lack calories. So let’s design technologies that bring all the right medicines to them and it will solve the problem. That seems to me too narrow a focus. Poverty is a deeper problem.

Q: If that’s the case, why do people get excited about technology?

It’s easy to be excited when you look at it. When the next iPhone comes out, it’s a big event. We get excited about its new features. iPhone is a pretty amazing technology. But after some time, when you get into reflecting mode, you start wondering if it’s kind of over-marketed. How good is it going to be? However, many don’t do that.

If you look at popular technology books, the story that sells is that here is a therapeutic technology that will cure malaria, and the world wouldn’t be same again. That’s the story they tell. Now, I would love to have a better treatment of malaria. But the narratives tend to overstate the significance of technological advances. While these are good to pursue, we also need to put them in perspective, and ask these long-term questions.

Every new technology has costs. When we take sides about potential benefits we tend to overlook the costs

Consider that the problems of climate change in part can be traced back to too one sided an approach to these new technologies. Coal-fired power plants are fantastic, but they also played a part in global warming. Every new technology has costs. When we take sides about potential benefits we tend to overlook the costs.

Q: What is your approach to these problems?

I studied philosophy. I am interested in using the tools of philosophy to address the big problems of humanity. You can take two approaches in philosophy. One, there are a group of philosophers who take the analytic approach. They focus on the detail, they are really fascinated by the details of an argument or use of a term. I like to broaden it.  Often we make mistakes because we have insufficiently broad perspective. Take economists. Now, economics is great and economic theory is great, but they approach this problem as if they are in kind of isolation. In philosophy, you take a broader view. Here is a problem in this area. Is there a problem that occurred in other areas? What have they said about it?

Q: When you were studying the problem of technological progress, what were your big surprises?

Many. When you approach a topic you come with a whole lot of assumptions. I think it’s important to be able to question those. I like reading people I disagree with. When you read someone who you disagree with, the first reaction is to say “what an idiot”. But then, I often force myself and say, “Hang on. What can I learn from this?” I must admit when I started looking at technology and technological progress I did believe that technological progress would solve, for instance, the moral problem of equality, the fact that there are people in our world who have so much and there are people who don’t. It looked like a technological problem. Work out what it is that poor people lack and find a technology that delivers it to them and rich people can still be rich. That was my starting assumption.

When you look at people like (columnist and author) Matt Ridley, for example, that’s very much the story. They say there are problems associated with technology but they are always flexible. He is the one, for example, talking about climate change. Yes, it’s a big problem, but we can fix it. I feel sometimes people are overconfident. It’s good to question your own confidence when you find yourself confidently asserting something. What if I am wrong? But there is something quite unnatural about it because people don’t like to think that they could be wrong in some of their most important assumptions.

Q: In your book, you talk about hedonic normalisation. How does that work?

What’s true in the short term need not be true in long term. Imagine, you have a new technology that suddenly comes along. Say, it’s a new therapy for a common disease. It will have a massive effect on happiness in that population. However, if you project that into the future, there is the process of hedonic normalisation, and you will find that the effect on happiness is close to zero. If you read the account of people who drove around in cars in its early days in Europe and America, it is almost as if they are describing something that’s magical. For us, cars are just mundane. I want to spend as little time in cars as possible. I think that’s the general process. It’s a fact about psychology, that we become hedonically normalised.

Q: The marginal value of technology keeps coming down?

Yes. That’s a useful way to look at it. Think of a new iPhone. If you buy one of those on the first day you feel it is a most amazing thing. You spend your entire day exploring its features. But, soon it loses its sheen. There is a kind of collective intra-generational version of that. It would be absurd go back 2,000 years and look at those people and say they didn’t have cars, so they must have been miserable. But no, they were happy I guess. However, if I were to time travel back to Rome 2,000 years ago and if I am forced to live there, I would be intensely depressed because a lot of things I assume I rely on wouldn’t be there. That’s not the way they experienced it. There were a lot of injustices in their lives, there were lots of horrors. But the fact is that the technology they had wasn’t rubbish for them. They were good enough.

Q. What role does ‘replacement’ play in the whole process?

It’s a kind of philosophers’ thought experiment. Let us imagine we are immortal and I look at the technology that surrounds me now and I compare it with technology that was 10,000 years ago. I would look at it and say, “Man, this is amazing. I started with barely being able to light a fire.” You will normalise it to where it was when you started, and all the technology you see might be amazing. Replacement in effect resets the dial. When you look at episodes of Star Trek, you find it pretty cool, but they are not wandering around saying man look at the amazing technology, look at medical tricorder. They are just normal things for them. That is replacement. Because people die and new people come into existence and that is just the adaptive feature of human psychology. They look around and they say this is normal. Cars, computers. My kids don’t view iPads as exciting technology. They say, haven’t we always had them?

People want the world to stay the same, unless you are suffering. Then you want change.

Q. Not everyone accepts new technology.

If you are comfortable you don’t want change, even if it’s a change that benefits you. It makes sense if you look at it in an evolutionary context. If you find yourself in a very unfamiliar surrounding you don’t know the dangers, you don’t know what’s waiting to jump out and eat you. It’s clear we prefer what we are familiar with and we are suspicious of change. People want the world to stay the same in many cases, unless you are suffering and you are miserable. Then you want change. But people think, my life is okay. Do I want this change? Do I want this radical change to my work environment? Do I want this automated technology? We don’t like change because change takes us away from what we are familiar with and takes us to something we just don’t know. If someone picks you up from your house and dumps you into a new house you feel a bit disoriented. In many cases, the job of people like me is to persuade people that suspicion of change is often mistaken. Changes can make your life better. The job of philosophers is often about trying to reason about change, and not saying, “Oh that seems new. I don’t like it.” Many changes, when you reflect upon, they are actually good.

The right approach to accepting change, to looking at new technologies, is to ask questions

The right approach to accepting change, to looking at new technologies, is to ask questions. What do I want? What do I value? This tech will enable to keep tabs on my kids. But, is that something I want? Google and Apple would love it to be the case. But, if you approach their technologies with appropriate scepticism about what they are offering, and a recognition that they just basically want your money, then you are likely to make more considered judgements.

Q. Should we make a distinction between the seventh iteration of an iPhone and more people getting internet connections?

If you ask me, unequal access to technology that can bring massive benefits to individuals is one of the defining problems of the age. Extending coverage of internet and giving access to regions where it was formerly unavailable is a different category of problem. Equality of access is one of the most important things and I am a big fan of governments doing what we collectively want them to do.

Q. With so much polarisation everywhere, is there a place for such consensus, or even nuanced arguments?

All I can say is, it’s incredibly difficult. Internet, which is supposed to be this wonderful technology that was to bring people together, has done the opposite. It has made things worse rather than better, because it discourages people from saying, here is something, I need to consider it, I need time to consider it. Instead, it’s about, “I am just going to type out abuse and post it.”

Meeting face-to-face always helps. Even sworn enemies engage better

In general, I am a big believer in face-to-face (interactions). In my profession, I have philosophical opponents, and when I meet them in a conference, I imagine they are not going to like me given what they have written about me. So, it’s always amazing to me when I sit down and talk to them.

I think we have the ability to look deeper. It’s hard work. I would love to have a magic wand that would make it all easy, but there isn’t one. But meeting face-to-face always helps. Even sworn enemies engage better when they meet face-to-face in a room. You have to make sure you haven’t left any knives out. Some end up hugging each other; they get a better sense of what the other person is saying. On Twitter, they would abuse each other.

I don’t believe big problems in our society have a technological solution. Technology can only be part of it

Q. So, technology has its limitations?

Yes. I don’t believe big problems in our society have a technological solution. Technology can only be part of it. As long as you go in with appropriate scepticism, not a blanket scepticism that says anything that is new is bad, you can get the best out of technological progress. It is always good to ask questions. Whenever there is technological novelty, ask questions that go beyond the marketing spiel to look at what it actually does. I am a big believer in being an informed consumer of technology, where you are asking who benefits from it, who is providing it, what are the costs, and how does it benefit me.

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Journalist, Author

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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