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Science, Magic, and Technology

Which of These Three is Not Like the Others

By Everyday JunglistPublished 2 months ago 5 min read
Will techno-utopia have upside down buildings? We may never know. Image by license from Adobe Stock.

In a story I published a few years back and more recently republished here I discussed the role of science in technological utopianism. For those who may not be familiar with technological utopianism a decent definition can be found at the beginning of Wikipedia’s entry on the subject.

Technological utopianism (often called techno-utopianism or technoutopianism) is any ideology based on the premise that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal. A techno-utopia is therefore a hypothetical ideal society, in which laws, government, and social conditions are solely operating for the benefit and well-being of all its citizens, set in the near- or far-future, when advanced science and technology will allow these ideal living standards to exist; for example, post-scarcity, transformations in human nature, the abolition of suffering and even the end of death.”

That definition lumps both science and technology together in the furtherment of the tech utopianist agenda. I argued then that they should not be so linked, and that scientists should shun the tech utopianist project and its objectives and question the motives of those who support it.

To understand why one has to first recognize the outsized role held by the technology industry in the modern world. Only national governments have more power over their populace in their everyday lives. Techno-utopianist ideology is common among the political class in most of the world. It is the one trait shared by elites across the political spectrum from capitalist to communist, left to right, authoritarian to democratic. Even theocratic and fascist states are populated at the highest levels by techno utopians though the often hide their lust for all things tech, with its built in materialist/capitalist underpinnings, beneath a veneer of piety. There can be little doubt that technology is a leading force for societal change globally. In many cases, perhaps even most, that has been a very good thing. Those positive stories about the impact of technology provide fodder for the tech utopians and example after example they can point to in support of their ideas. However, in their ardor for all things tech they leave out important caveats and downplay counter examples which illustrate the many problems and negative outcomes that also happen when technology based solutions and approaches are applied to societal problems and political systems. Gross violations of human rights and invasions of personal privacy have been aided and abetted by technology and these will only become more and more severe over time.

The techutopianists would argue that they believe in the power of technology to create an ideal society, one which works toward the common good for all its citizens and thus authoritarian or despotic regimes would never survive the arrival of technoutopia. Ultimately, however, they see no need for government at all. When mankind is totally dependent on tech to supply all of their needs and satisfy all their desires what need is there for political structure of any kind? All of the functions once provided by governments will be rendered unnecessary (defense, law and order, social safety nets, etc.) That might actually be a positive change. Governments have generally done a fairly poor job in each of those areas to date. However, as many utopian ideals the harsh realities of human nature suggest there is about a Planck's length greater than zero chance of that actually happening. For the non-scientifically trained reader a Planck length is the smallest measurable unit of distance. In other words there is very little to no chance. I am no anti-tech luddite and absolutely view it as a critically important and mostly positive force in all of our lives. However, it alone will not bring about utopia, and it does and will continue to hurt many people in many ways, some very badly. Unless science wants to be a party to that it needs to distance itself from the techutopianist project.

So why do technologists and the general public tend to lump science and technology together when they are really two totally different things? Of course partially it is out of ignorance. Many non-scientists have little idea what science actually is or what scientists actually do. That is no knock on those people, I have no idea what most electricians or plumbers actually do. I view them as related but distinct disciplines but I would not lump plumbers in as key allies of the electricians in the coming electrico-utopia. The more knowledgeable tend to link science with technology because it is virtually undeniable that without the discoveries of science, technology could never have “gotten off the ground,” at least not in the form we see it today. Running at the core of every smartphone, powering every computer, enabling every smart (these devices are not actually 'smart' but I use the vernacular because everybody knows it and uses it) device, are sets of fundamental forces and energies. These needed to be at least partially described and understood before they could be manipulated and used to do the things that we desired. Magic and miracles may have fallen before the might of scientific understanding, but early technologists recognized the desire in people for the magical, the wondrous. Technology became the go to catch all phrase for things that operate on scientific (not magical) properties but often posses what look and feel to many like magical capabilities.

In a sense you could say that while science destroyed magic it also laid the groundwork for its return in a different form, i.e. the form of technology.

While technology could not exist without science, there are major differences that exist between the methods used by scientists (aka the scientific method) and those used by technology and the technologists that make it clear they are totally different things. Of course an exact definition of the "scientific method” is debatable, and remains a major point of contention among philosophers of science and others. However, no matter how you define it, it is not the method used in the ideation, development, or production of technology. Rather, principles of engineering, mathematics, and of course, computer science, are employed. Each of these things is based on scientific principles or used in the doing of science, but they are not science, not even close. If the techno-utopian dream ever does come to pass, it may have been enabled by science, but it will not, and should not be, because of it.

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About the Creator

Everyday Junglist

Practicing mage of the natural sciences (Ph.D. micro/mol bio), Thought middle manager, Everyday Junglist, Boulderer, Cat lover, No tie shoelace user, Humorist, Argan oil aficionado. Occasional LinkedIn & Facebook user

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