Countering Threats to Innovation with Rational Optimism

by on April 29, 2019 · 0 comments

Over at the American Institute for Economic Research blog, I recently posted two new essays discussing increasing threats to innovation and discussing how to counter them. The first is on “The Radicalization of Modern Tech Criticism,” and the second discusses, “How To Defend a Culture of Innovation During the Technopanic.”

“Technology critics have always been with us, and they have sometimes helped temper society’s occasional irrational exuberance about certain innovations,” I note in the opening of the first essay. The problem is that the “technology critics sometimes go much too far and overlook the importance of finding new and better ways of satisfying both basic and complex human needs and wants.” I continue on to highlight the growing “technopanic” rhetoric we sometimes hear today, including various claims that “it’s OK to be a Luddite” and push for a “degrowth movement” that would slow the wheels of progress. That would be a disaster for humanity because, as I note in concluding that first essay:

Through ongoing trial-and-error tool building, we discover new and better ways of satisfying human needs and wants to better our lives and the lives of those around us. Human flourishing is dependent upon our collective willingness to embrace and defend the creativity, risk-taking, and experimentation that produces the wisdom and growth that propel us forward. By contrast, today’s neo-Luddite tech critics suggest that we should just be content with the tools of the past and slow down the pace of technological innovation to supposedly save us from any number of dystopian futures they predict. If they succeed, it will leave us in a true dystopia that will foreclose the entrepreneurialism and innovation opportunities that are paramount to raising the standard of living for billions of people across the world.

In the second essay, I make an attempt to sketch out a more robust vision and set of principles to counter the tech critics. Building on my last book, as well as a forthcoming one, I outline a sort of “rational-optimist creed.” This vision is inspired by the important work of Matt Ridley and his excellent book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Generally speaking, rational optimists:

  • believe there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment, but also acknowledge the various challenges sometimes associated with technological change;
  • look forward to a better future and reject overly nostalgic accounts of some supposed “good ‘ol days” or bygone better eras;
  • base our optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling;
  • support practical, bottom-up solutions to hard problems through ongoing trial-and-error experimentation, but are not wedded to any one process to get the job done;
  • appreciate entrepreneurs for their willingness to take risks and try new things, but do not engage in hero worship of any particular individual, organization, or particular technology.

Going further, I build on the excellent work of Robert D. Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who in his 2005 book, The Past and Future of America’s Economy, identified the way “a political divide is emerging between preservationists who want to hold onto the past and modernizers who recognize that new times require new means.” I tried to provide a breakdown for how this conflict of visions plays out in various ways:

I also highlight some of my favorite works by other rational optimists, including, Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now), Deirdre McCloskey (Bourgeois Equality), Calestous Juma (Innovation and Its Enemies), Samuel Florman (The Existential Pleasures of Engineering), and Virginia Postrel (The Future and Its Enemies), and Joel Mokyr, (The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress).

I encourage you to jump over to the AIER blog and read both essays in full.


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