Economists and many others are deeply convinced that there is technological progress. Technological progress is a defining idea of Western modernity, originating from the Enlightenment. This is also recognized in the most comprehensive and apparently conclusive account of progress, Pinker’s book ‘Enlightenment Now’. So, it seems insane denying that there is technological progress.
Yet, the question remains how far the notion of technological progress applies on the evolution of the technosphere, as distinguished from ‘technology’. In fact, it is only a projection of our perceptions of technosphere evolution, as manifest in perceived benefits and improvements of technology for us. But can we conclude that the technosphere in toto follows a progressive trajectory in any sense? That it is not just a sort of cancer of the Earth system? This doubt points to the debates about Darwin’s and Spencer’s concepts of evolution, and which clearly concluded that Spencer’s progressivist interpretation is flawed: Evolution does not follow a linear trajectory of progress. The earthworm is as well adapted to its niche as we humans are. One essential point about Darwinian evolution is that it creates ecological systems in which all kinds of living entities co-exist, with no single entity being ‘better’ than others. We might think of some measures for assessing the ecosystem as a whole, or even the biosphere, in terms of abstract and universal measures such as complexity, but this does not allow for comparing single components on a ladder of progress.
If we approach technological change as evolutionary, even in the Darwinian sense, as suggested by evolutionary economics, we must employ the same logic. As I argued in a previous post, this follows from the fact that technological change mainly proceeds through re-combination, variation and selection, step by step building on the pre-existing components. Since the space of possible recombinations grows hyperexponentially, this implies that only an increasingly smaller part is factually realized, and we never know which alternatives have been lost (this formalizes the famous dictum ‘the more we know, the less we know’). In other words, there is no a priori reason that technological change approaches a kind of global optimum. We can only expect that local optima may reached, if at all.
How does technological selection operate? In modern economies, most technologies undergo selection by the market. The other significant factor is military competition. That means, humans play an essential role as constituting the environment in which the technosphere evolves. But as economists are never weary to emphasize, market evolution is not designed or overlooked by humans, and therefore cannot be planned. From this follows that we project notions of progress on technosphere evolution, which themselves evolve in market contexts without our design, but we are not justified to assume that this reflects any underlying reality of technosphere evolution. This is a truly Marxian state of ‘Entfremdung’ (alienation) resulting from ‘fetishism’.
My favorite example is the car and the combustion engine. In the initial stage of the technological trajectory, there was the genuine alternative of the electrical engine. But for some reasons, the combustion engine made it, later strongly pushed by the powerful capitalist interests tied to oil. Until today, there was continuous ‘technological progress’, but today we recognize that we applied the wrong yardstick, overlooking the serious ecological externalities. Today, we believe that the electrical engine is the better solution, and struggle for changing the trajectory. Obviously, the notion of ‘progress’ is highly misleading here, as the trajectory of the combustion engine has proved to be a cul-de-sac, or even a regress in terms of the accumulating ecological damages (the book ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’ gives many examples of such developments).
The notion of progress is a mere ex post rationalization of past local trajectories of technological change, and there is no justification why these should be projected into the future, which is the core assumption in the ideology of technological progress. The technosphere evolves autonomously, with no necessary direction apart from fundamental physical forces, and we just perceive progress in terms of what fits our needs.
If that is true, we face the problem that it is us who select the technologies of the future. If we leave our state of alienation, how can we decide which trajectory should be chosen? This is another case for switching from an anthropocentric to a geocentric view. The idea is simple: We should select technological paths which do not maximize our own benefits, but which maximize the benefits to the biosphere of which we are a part. In a previous post, I introduced the notion of technosystem services: For example, in choosing among technological approaches to designing cities we would ask whether and how these contribute to the flourishing of the local ecosystems, and not only how we humans better enjoy urban life. Of course, that cannot mean that we return to the wilderness, but it implies that we always evaluate technological choices not just in terms of avoiding damage to the environment, but also in terms of positively supporting and improving the environment for the biosphere. This would be a geocentric notion of technological progress. I emphasize that this does not change my previous analysis about the futility of the notion of progress. But we cannot avoid acting, and we must act according to some goal, which is defined in terms of improvements. As long as we only follow human goals, even with the intention to minimize damage, we still define progress in this narrow way. Geocentric notions of progress would substantially improve the odds that technosphere evolution will stay in harmony with the Earth system.
If a geocentric valuation would have been made around 1900 about the preferred type of engine, probably the electrical one would have made it, if only because of lower levels of nuisances in the form of noise and exhausts: had the engineers simply listened to their fellow animals what they like most!