Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cory Doctorow feels pretty good about the future

In this odd little story by Cory Doctorow global warming has dramatically increased temperatures, but it’s not such a big deal. In Burbank, California, in the not-too-distant future, “It was only March, but Burbank was baking: Three days in a row it had hit 120 degrees by noon”; and “the year before, on April 18, a Thursday after a succession of days that vied to top each other for inhumane conditions, the weather app on the hallway wall showing 112 degrees before breakfast.”

But the heat doesn’t seem to be much of a problem because the power companies have gone solar and so much energy is available that Burbank Water and Power effectively pay the people of Lima Street to turn on their air conditioners full blast and send the cool air into the street — which has been covered by awnings that the city delivered to the residents early that morning — and have themselves a block party. (Which they can do because all the people have “work-scheduling apps [that] had been able to rearrange their schedules to give them all an impromptu day off.”)

I don’t know, but it seems to me that Doctorow hasn’t thought through this scenario. The story makes several references to the noise the local parrots make, but if temps can get to 112 before breakfast, then they surely get to 140 or more by four in the afternoon, and I don’t think there are any parrots that can survive in those temperatures. How many animals of any kind can? The story also mentions sweetgum trees along the streets, and I’m not sure they’d do well in 140-degree temperatures either. Anything that did survive in those conditions would need a lot of water, and hasn’t southern California historically had trouble getting enough water? Is that supposed to get easier in a period of global warming? Maybe desalinization works in this imagined future, and surely Burbank would benefit from that, given that the rising temperatures would have raised the ocean levels considerably, and a place like Burbank (20 miles or so from the coast in 2018) is going to be almost oceanside property in such a world.

I just don’t get it. Is the story actually a parody of techno-optimism? Yes, global warming is going to be horrific, but no worries, we’ve got it whipped with solar power and work-scheduling apps! But I suspect that Doctorow is seriously upbeat about the baking-hot future. On the same day I read this story I read a brief essay by him lamenting the current backlash against Silicon Valley (the “techlash”) — or at least lamenting the forms it’s taking:

The long-delayed techlash has an unfortunate tendency to scapegoat early tech pioneers who promoted the idea that technology could make our lives better. These people – people I was fortunate enough to grow up among – are said to have been blind to the potential of technology to harm our privacy, our discourse, and our human rights.

The reality is that these early “techno-utopians” were keenly aware of these risks. They founded organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation, not because they were convinced that everything was going to be great – but because they were worried that everything could be terrible, and also because they saw the potential for things to be better.

The motto of these pioneers wasn’t, “This is going to be so great.” It was, “This could be great – if we don’t screw it up.”

The people of tech – the people without whom Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon couldn’t keep the lights on — [are] human beings with agency and willpower, and they are subject to moral suasion. They are capable of building a technological future that gives us the things we love about our technology, without inflicting the harms of these systems upon us.

So all we need is to apply a little moral suasion and the technologists of today and tomorrow will rescue us from the consequences of the actions of the technologists of yesterday. For somehow, someway, the bigger tech capitalism has gotten the more foresight it has developed and the greater has grown its compassion for people and the planet. “‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

2 comments:

  • "I don’t know, but it seems to me that Doctorow hasn’t thought through this scenario. "

    Cory has long been very clever about appearing to be smarter than he is.

  • Even if they (to lump all tech pioneers together, as if they were acting in unison) were keenly aware of the risks, isn't it fair to judge them on the decisions they made and how those decisions turned out?

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