Sunday, 14 August 2016


I consider myself a techno-optimism, albeit of a slightly more reserved kind that the most bullish who fit that description. Whilst my techno-optimism is tempered to some degree by inherent attributes of technology which make them dangerous, it is tempered by a much greater degree by what I have begun to call anthro-pessimism.

It is not a new idea to attribute the negative aspects of technology to man's use of them, but I think it is important to extract the issue of anthro-pessimism from the techno-optimism / techno-pessimism debate, not least because if we can define and characterize anthro-pessimism, we may be able to solve it.

And when we do, we can stop worrying quite so much about technology. In fact it's likely that technology will be able to help us solve the causes of anthro-pessimism.

So how might we define anthro-pessimism? Hollywood (and George W. Bush) would have us call it evil. Others might blame it on selfishness.

Selfishness is not a bad place to start, but in fact people in democracies sometimes vote against things that are not in their self interest (out of ignorance or irrationality, not altruism). Hence I've settled on the following factors as the root cause of my anthro-pessimism:

  • selfishness
  • lack of education / ignorance
  • cognitive biases / rationality
Selfishness - to a small extent this factor has been addressed by the structure of free market / meritocratic societies. It may also be an inherent characteristic that is hard to eliminate. However doing so may not be necessary if the other two factors are adequately addressed. If not it may also be mitigated to some degree by optimizing the structure of society.

Lack of education / ignorance - this is a huge area and in terms of human history is only very recently being addressed. One of the ways current education fails the most is in giving students a broad understanding of the world around them, how it got to be this way and how it may develop in the future; the teaching of history is often particularly narrow and biased.

Cognitive biases / rationality - as I included ignorance as one of my causal factors, perhaps we'd be OK it everyone were educated to the level of a university professor? No so unfortunately: professors are not immune to the cognitive biases that plague human cognition, and are hence not rational, and will not necessarily make optimal decisions.

The three factors can be restated in less human terms as follows:
  • Motivation for decision
  • Access to information
  • Tools to process the information to make a decision that matches the motivation
There is another rarer cause for anthro-pessimism that isn't covered by the three factors above mentioned: a mental health condition that would motivate an actor (or actors) such that despite an absence of ignorance and irrationality, and even considering the consequences of action that would be imposed upon the actor (or actors) by society for committing a harmful act, would still be sufficiently motivated to do so. I am not entirely sure whether such a mental condition exists as I strongly suspect most historical cases that may appear similar would actually so significant ignorance or irrationality, but it is worth including for completeness. It also potentially illustrates a blurry line between selfishness / motivation and irrationality.

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