What Cultural Maturity is Not #1: Techno-Utopian Delusions

In my recent book, Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I divide the most commonly encountered views of the future into five “scenarios” (to use the language of futurists): We’ve Arrived Scenarios, We’ve Gone Astray Scenarios, Postindustrial/Information Age Scenarios, Postmodern/Constructivist Scenarios, and Transformational/New Paradigm Scenarios. In contrasting them with the concept of Cultural Maturity, I describe how each stops short of providing effective guidance. I also delineate how each is best thought of less as a product of reasoned consideration than as how the future looks from a particular kind of limited perspective.

That the first two differ fundamentally from where the concept of Cultural Maturity’s more systemic perspective takes us is most obvious. Culturally mature perspective makes clear that Modern Age belief is not an endpoint (we have not “arrived”). It also emphasizes that going forward in rewarding ways is very much an option (neither have we “gone astray”—at least in some ultimate way.) The remaining three scenarios share with the concept of Cultural Maturity that each supports both that further chapters in the human story lie ahead and that these further chapters have the potential to be positive. But, in the end, their conclusions are, again, fundamentally different. Because people can confuse these three, more positive future-oriented ways of thinking with what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes, I will do a separate “compare and contrast” post for each. Here I start with Postindustrial/Information Age Scenarios.

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Post-industrial/Information Age interpretations treat invention as the fundamental driver of cultural change and emphasize the transforming effects that inventions of the future will have in every aspect of our lives. Often they make technology the ultimate solution. Such views are common in popular culture and academic thought, and find special favor in futurist circles. The digital revolution has given such beliefs a new generation of adherents.

Culturally Mature perspective affirms technology’s essential role in future possibilities and also applauds many Postindustrial/Information Age ideas. But at the same time it directly challenges much in at least the more simplistic of Post-industrial/Information Age interpretation. Most obviously, it does so in cautioning against the assumption that the consequences of invention will necessarily be positive. It reminds us that inventing is not the same thing as using invention wisely. It also emphasizes that technological solutions will rarely in themselves be sufficient for addressing the tasks ahead.

The most limited of Post-industrial/Information Age thinking simply extends the Industrial Age’s onward-and-upward story and thus contributes little to the needed greater maturity of perspective. But Postindustrial/Information Age thinking can also alert us to many of the questions culturally mature perspective addresses. It is also the case that the best of Post-industrial/Information Age thought can put forward ideas that are nearly as far-reaching in their implications as those offered by more explicitly culturally mature writings. For example, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt, who provided some of the best early futures-oriented thinking for a popular audience, addressed broad cultural concerns. And some of the more insightful commentators on the information revolution—Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Joy come immediately to mind—have reflected on specific social issues.

We see this result for two very different reasons. First, there is the fact that emerging technologies often serve to support and catalyze Cultural Maturity–related changes. The fact that global access to technologies can make possible greater resource efficiency, for example, will be critical to long-term environmental sustainability. And emerging technologies can support not just needed changes in what we do, but also in how we think. We see this with how decentralized information technologies can thrust us into systemically networked realities that just by their structures transcend conventional expertise and authority.

The second reason we may see related predictions is a product of unwarranted conclusions. Post-industrial/Information Age thinkers can predict outcomes that, while superficially accurate, are not really supported by Post-industrial/Information Age interpretation. Postindustrial/Information Age thinkers can assume, for example, that the greater connectedness that comes with globalization will, by itself, produce a more peaceful world. Culturally mature perspective warns us that if the result is not instead to be ever more dangerous conflict, changes in the ways we think and relate will also be required. (See An End to War as We Have Known It.) We find another example in theorists who observe some of the more positive possible effects of decentralized information technologies and then talk as if the psychological and social changes needed for a healthy future will follow naturally from them. This prediction is again not supported, certainly if we are talking about the depth of psychological and social changes required for wise future decision-making. Indeed, a common result of new information technologies is to compound one of our times greatest problems: growing addiction to artificial stimulation and pseudo-significance. (See Artificial Stimulations as Meaning.) At the least, technological advances, by themselves, do nothing to counter it.

Culturally mature perspective applauds contributions made by the more sophisticated of Post-industrial/Information Age thinkers. And, at the same time, it warns even those who make an effort to think in more encompassing ways that they may need to reexamine their explanations if their ideas are to hold up—and, more important, if their ideas are to ultimately serve us as we go forward.

Post-industrial/Information Age interpretation and the concept of Cultural Maturity more explicitly part company regarding the common Post-industrial/Information Age assumption that technological innovation is what ultimately drives cultural change. Culturally mature perspective affirms the importance of technology as one driver of change, but it also emphasizes that this explanation in isolation leaves out much of what is most significant—for understanding change, and more importantly, for usefully addressing the future. It argues that, more accurately, the causality goes both ways. Invention catalyzes change, but what we are capable of inventing is also always a function of who we are and how we are able to understand and perceive. In particular, innovation reflects our time in culture’s story. (An illustration: While China had all the technical prerequisites for an industrial revolution 2,000 years ago, it lacked the materialist, individualist values needed to make such change acceptable and successful. Today, we see no such lack.) With regard to today’s needed changes, invention helps drive and support Cultural Maturity. But it is just as true that invention sufficiently innovative to push us toward needed changes could not happen—and certainly would not be supported—without the new sensibilities and perspectives that Cultural Maturity begins to make possible.

Another way in which culturally mature perspective takes issue with Post-industrial/Information Age assumptions concerns just what needed changes in how we understand, if recognized, entail. The best of Post-industrial/Information Age thinking affirms the importance not just of technical advancement, but also of new ways of thinking. And there can be similarities in the kinds of conceptual changes proposed. We often see emphasis, for example, on the importance of systemic understanding. But here, again, limiting assumptions about how things work—in this case, a strong mechanistic bias—tend to get in the way of the needed sophistication of conceptual perspective. What we encounter is rarely more than systemic understanding of the engineering sort. Culturally Mature perspective emphasizes the importance of systems thinking that reflects the fact that we are living beings. (See A Necessary Growing Up from media posts).

We can miss the strong ideological component that commonly permeates Post-industrial/Information Age thinking for the simple reason that such thinking emphasizes much that we most mythologize in our time. Post-industrial/Information Age assertions can simply appear smart and logical. The hidden ideological thread becomes most apparent when such interpretation takes a utopian turn—think of science fiction–like prognostications from the middle of the previous century that claimed that we should all by now be living in glass-enclosed cities and flying around in personal transporters.

We also encounter this ideological component in knee-jerk conclusions that with any close examination become questionable at best. Consider the common assumption in artificial intelligence circles that computers will soon become more intelligent than we are. In a purely computational sense, they are already more intelligent—indeed much more so. But belief that they might become more intelligent than we are in the ways that are most important to us—that can guide us in having meaningful relationships and crafting creative and purposeful lives—reflects decidedly limited, and ultimately ideological ideas about the nature of intelligence. This distinction becomes particularly critical if our concern is the wisdom-related cognitive capacities that will be increasingly important to us in the future. (See Why Artificial Intelligence Need Not Be the End of Us for further reflections on this distinction and its essential implications.)

We encounter a related sort of ideological belief with supposedly scientific conclusions that reduce to a narrow scientism. Such conclusions and techno-utopian thinking have the same origins—extension of the Modern Age belief that it is all a “great clockworks” to an absurd, idealized extreme. Narrow scientism is remarkable as much for what its thinking leaves out as for what it emphasizes. I think of evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker’s ludicrous conclusion that music has no real evolutionary significance—that in the end music is just “ear candy.” It is remarkable enough that anyone who has ever listened to music could reach this conclusion. But it is particularly remarkable that this conclusion could be reached by an evolutionary biologist given that music has had an essential role in every human society we are aware of since our species’ beginnings. A related absolutist dismissing of the spiritual is common with such thinking—Richard Dawkins the most familiar exponent of such “scientifically-based” atheism.

Creative Systems Theory provides explanation for these absurd conclusions. It describes how the more non-computational parts of intelligence, music, and the spiritual each reflect what it calls more more “archetypally-feminine,” or “left-hand” aspects of our systemic makeup. It goes on to describe how archetypally feminine sensibilities have evolved through history—having greatest influence in earliest cultural times, then gradually diminishing in influence over civilization’s course, and, today, often coming to be nearly invisible. Any at all complete systemic formulation requires thinking that takes into account the contributions of both left-hand and right-hand cognitive aspects. The fact that techno-utopian belief is based on an absolutist polar identification means that it represents not just ideology, but ideology of a particularly “fundamentalist” sort. And the fact that it reflects polar identification with archetypally masculine, right-hand sensibility means that such ideology, because we are vulnerable to confusing it with the kind of new clarity the future is requiring of us, can be especially dangerous.

The pivotal influence of digital technologies, today, can combine with Transitional dynamics (see the concept of Transition) to produce particularly extreme forms of techno-utopianism. We see this most dramatically with anything-is-possible special effects imagery in the media. But we also encounter it in views expressed by acknowledged serious thinkers. I’m reminded of recent claims by techno-utopian guru Ray Kurtzweil that artificial intelligence, by offering the option of wholly disembodied existence, will make eternal life finally possible. Besides being a conclusion that again depends on a naïvely simplistic picture of intelligence, this conclusion reflects an ultimate limits–denying ambition that is a giveaway for ideology. Extreme expressions of a technological gospel can titillate, but they are best thought of as what Creative Systems Theory calls Transitional Absurdity (see Transitional Absurdity).

In Summary: Post-industrial/Information Age interpretations, while sometimes helpful, most often stop well short of providing the completeness of perspective our times demand. Indeed, because such interpretations tend to leave out so much that needs to be considered as we go forward—not just how personal change must be, but also how deeply in ourselves it will require that we reach—they often work to hide from us the depths of what our times require. They may provide imagery that excites, but they fail to give us an at all complete picture of what the future will require. Technological advancement is wonderful, but it is only part of what we need for a future that is worth living.