On technological optimism and technological pragmatism

Wednesday 1st March, 2023 - Bruce Sterling

*This essay doesn’t have much to do with constructing technology art, but there are some interesting social and artistic implications here.



It has been less than two years since Jack Dorsey insisted bitcoin would bring about world peace. Elon Musk routinely talks about magically transforming the world, rising above both politics and politicians. Sam Altman insists that AI will soon bring about a new economics of abundance. And at the same time, we have wrestled in recent years with the fragility of politics (January 6th), and the brittleness of the economy (soaring economic inequality). What James Carey had to say about the dotcom crash reads like a more polished version of what I have been trying to articulate about Silicon Valley for the past several years.

Carey’s essay is a sharp rebuke of the dominant trends in internet scholarship and public thinking. He takes issue with its ahistorical rendering of the internet as a revolution unlike any we have witnessed in centuries. He highlights the manifold ways that technological innovation is “embedded in the vital world of politics, economics, religion and culture.”

In place of this ahistorical tech optimism, he calls for an approach that he labels pragmatism. Here he draws on the 19th century pragmatist intellectual movement (as described in Lewis Menand’s book, The Metaphysical Club). The historical pragmatists, Carey tells us, were united by the realization “that there were no guarantees that things were going to turn out very well for anyone.” … “all social change is purchased at a price.”…