Balaji writes about the purpose of technology:
“If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.”
Hey ChatGPT, could we get a summary of his argument?
“The author argues that the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, which can be seen in how technological breakthroughs allow us to do more with less in both the digital and physical world. The author then makes the logical implication that the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality, as mortality is the main source of scarcity. If we had infinite time, speed and efficiency would be less valuable, and thus, life extension is the most important thing we can invent.”
Cool… thanks. Truth be told, nineteen-year-old me would’ve jumped in support of this line of argument, but three years later, I find myself more critical of arguments that reduce all human activity to economic productivity. Admittedly, Balaji’s premise is sound as much of technology has been geared towards the reduction of scarcity. The neolithic agricultural revolution reduced food scarcity. The industrial revolution reduced the scarcity of manufactured goods. The digital revolution reduced the scarcity of information (whether accurate or not is debatable).
However, Balaji’s definition of scarcity is strange. He says “with new technology, one can do more with less” linking reduced scarcity to efficiency, rather than the abundance of resources. But any post-scarcity vision built on increased production efficiency must reckon with Jevons paradox- technological improvements in efficiency are often followed by an increase in consumption due to rising demand from falling costs. In other words, Jevons paradox explains that the invention of more efficient steam engines didn’t reduce the use of fossil fuels, but rather reduced the costs of travel, stimulating demand and counterintuitively increasing the use of fossil fuels.
By no means does this imply that progress is bad, humanity has achieved incredible abundance through technological innovation (just look below). But what we have gained is not entirely positive-sum. Acknowledging our drain of resources from other communities, environments, and ecologies, whether human or not, is crucial for a complete picture of the global economy.
To Balaji, this premise implies immortality is the greatest good. He argues that for immortals, the speed of consumption is irrelevant because they have an eternity to do everything they want to do.
There are a number of problems with this line of thinking, the first and foremost being that speed is only one side of the “production efficiency” coin. The other, arguably more important side is quantity. Perhaps, in an immortal future, I hold no care for my Amazon Prime “put-the-parcel-in-my-hand-the-moment-i-think-about-it” subscription. But immortal me still cares about the volume of consumed goods, especially when the goods are essential like food and water.
This leads to my second point which is Jevons paradox for immortal humanity. An immortal, with zero time cost, has no issue spending time-consuming things they might not otherwise find meaningful. A mortal has to choose their consumption, an immortal can have it all. With the fact that immortals live much longer, this would mean an exponential growth in consumption which any increase in production efficiency would find hard to match.
Add the lives of immortals to our existing population growth and you get a variant of the infamous Malthusian trap where everyone is reduced to subsistence over competition for finite resources. This is doubly true when considering essentials like food, where the volume of consumed goods matters more than the speed.
Contrary to Balaji’s article, immortality seems to increase scarcity if anything. More broadly, in a finite world, with finite access to resources, post-scarcity is a pipe dream. But, it could be argued that more people alive would mean more minds to invent technologies that increase absolute access to resources rather than efficiency (think asteroid mining or agriculture on Ganymede). This seems self-defeating, in this worldview immortality is simply a means to obtain more technology which opens access to more resources. If technology’s ultimate purpose is immortality, then it should logically cease to be useful post-mortality.
The need for narrative
That being said, I don’t entirely disagree with him. Later on in the article, Balaji proceeds to advocate for a revitalization of techno-optimist storytelling. Rahul Rana in his recent article, “Tell Good Stories”, reiterates that point:
We need knowledgeable people to tell Good Stories, to weave together all of the threads of the current state-of-the-art into compelling narratives that help clarify the future. Importantly, they need to help people understand the impact – good and bad, not just bad – that new technologies might have on their lives.
Tell Good Stories, Not Boring
What Rahul and Balaji both hone in on, is the importance (and relative lack) of meaningful narratives around technology. While most people are aware of what technology can enable us to do, we do not know why we should do anything with technology at all.
Notwithstanding the lack of narratives, there are deeper wounds to heal hidden in the public’s mistrust of technology. The last generation of techno-evangelists moved fast and broke many promises that they had made. They have profited off of digital addictions to social networks, deepened ideological divides in society and strengthened governments with digital surveillance tools.
The cypherpunk utopian narratives that were pervasive in 1980s Silicon Valley saw states, ethics, politics and history as enemies to progress, instead preferring a techno-centric worldview. While those narratives are pretty pictures of the world, they fail to account for the complex socio-political world that we inhabit. The reason the public distrusts technology is not that they don’t believe in progress, but because it feels like progress is being made for a few at the expense of the many.
In this situation, the revitalization of techno-centric narratives about “immutable money, infinite frontier, artificial intelligence, and eternal life” (Balaji’s article again), is sure to only prompt scoffs and disdain. The critical part of the technology narrative is not what can do, but rather how we can collectively flourish.
Jasmine Sun puts this rather succinctly:
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. We can recognize that technology is critical to our future without replicating the narrow techno-utopianism of the past. From the beginning, a new left techno-optimism must be willing to engage with social justice, politics, and history in a way that past techno-utopians have not. …. …. we need parallel efforts around imagining better worlds and building the tools, resources, and infrastructure that will get us there. Unlike those of past techno-utopians, these projects can be promising because they start with an understanding of our social, political, and historical conditions before scoping tech’s role.
We should start with visioning: telling stories about who will be included and how; rallying people around technology’s human potentials rather than its abstract technical features. Early science fiction, from Russian cosmists’ writing on spaceflight to Vernor Vinge’s pseudonymous web, catalyzed decades of research and development that turned ideas into reality. Yet unlike these past sci-fi scenes, our visions for a progressive techno-optimism must be shaped by diverse voices.
The Reboot Manifesto
I agree with both Balaji and Rahul, we need more progressive narratives. But the problem with making immortality the goal of technology goes back to my earlier point about how progress is not entirely positive-sum. The pursuit of immortality sounds exactly like something that would benefit a small, elite group at the expense of resources from other communities and environments in the global economy. It is terribly difficult to tell if Balaji wants humanity to be immortal, or just himself. After all, he would be at the front of the line for any longevity technology- “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed”.
And this isn’t going to inspire the kind of optimism that I want to see in the world.
So, I’ll try to do better. Going back to the agricultural, industrial and digital revolutions, something always follows the rapid increase in productive efficiency. The neolithic agricultural revolution saw the rise of centralized cities, political structures, division of labour, art and architecture. The industrial revolution saw the rise of democracy, capital markets, liberalism, egalitarianism and literacy. All of these features might be summarized as a rise in the standard of living, and a rise in human flourishing. From that lens, reducing scarcity is a means to an end: the proximate purpose of technology is to maximize human flourishing.
I imagine flourishing to be about more than longevity, indeed I believe it is about much more than humans. It comes from the understanding that all flourishing is mutual, that we are part of a beautifully complex system that is bigger than us. It lives in gratitude for the world, and compassionate communities rich with shared meaning. Flourishing is about technology that enables and connects people to do things that they otherwise couldn’t. Most importantly, flourishing is about managing real scarcity and yet living in abundance.
Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need.
- Braiding Sweetgrass
Flourishing is a path, a trajectory whose final destination is hard to pinpoint. But, when I try to imagine the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I think of the word vitality. In Latin, Hildegard von Bingen called it Veriditas: the imperative of humans to grow and spread all forms of life, heal each other and nurture the world around them. Vitality encapsulates not just the pursuit of human flourishing but that of collective flourishing, recognizing that complete physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being resides in the relationships, not the self.
If the proximate purpose of technology is flourishing, the ultimate purpose of technology is vitality.
A technological telos of vitality might have very similar goals to those outlined by Balaji - “immutable money, infinite frontier, artificial intelligence, and eternal life”. But the context is critical. Vitality calls on us to re-examine our relationships with each other and the world and use technology in ways which empower all of us.
This calls for more than ordinary techno-centrism. In every revolution before, an increase in abundance was subsequently followed by a reorganization of societal values to increase flourishing. But the digital revolution has yet to bring with it such change. EO Wilson put it best when he said:
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. - EO Wilson
Thus the narrative of vitality necessitates an inclusive definition of technology. It reminds us that social, economic and political structures are essential technologies for modern civilization, and desperately need innovation.
Imagine inclusive worlds
To generate a deep sense of shared meaning we must paint a vision for a future that everyone wants to see. A focus on technological progress as the civilizational narrative not only alienates the majority of people but fails to remember that technology is a tool, not an end in and of itself.
To rekindle human ambition we should instead gather around a ‘telos’. Acknowledging vitality as a fundamental good gives us the guiding principle by which to wield the power of technology. With that, we can paint a future that people are willing to fight for.
Special thanks to Jeremy Sim, Nikita Vattas, Andy Tudhope, Ray Schmitz for reviewing this essay and providing insightful feedback and new research directions. Andy also wrote a piece ‘Encouraging Heart’ partially inspired by this that you should check out!