02.08.21

Informatics, Progress, and Technocracy — Part II: About Progress

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 1:13 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Daniel Cantarín. Original version in Spanish here. Introduction and Part I published yesterday.

Progress/Guitar Eye Portrait

Summary: Part II of Daniel Cantarín’s article “Informática, progreso, y tecnocracia”

Following the example of economics, both in Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital, you can find ideas of progress showing the way forward for humanity: opulence development, classless societies, and all the good stuff we all know. And the thing is, it was the epoch calling for that: we had a political revolution in France, and a technological revolution in England. Clearly the world was changing. And at the heart of it all, there were anthropocentrism first, and science later. Man had defeated God, and suddenly he was the owner of its destiny, no longer written in sacred scriptures nor controlled by wise scholastics. And at the same time, science became the tool for ultimate truth. That adventurous spirit, mixing ingenuity with innovation, gave rise to a new ideological bias: technological optimism.

“When Marx saw the exclusion and misery spreading around technology, he didn’t condemned technology but the way it was being used in that society…”As decades passed, scientific and technological development left little space for debate, and the feeling began to be that the only real limit for humanity was its imagination. It is not that there weren’t any critical voices around at that time, nor also newer problems: it was that technology introduced so many radical and spectacular changes that one could hardly argue against its virtues if used correctly. Such was the case with Marx, for example. When Marx saw the exclusion and misery spreading around technology, he didn’t condemned technology but the way it was being used in that society; in fact, he argued that technological development was already not only desirable (as that would be the road to a classless society), but also inevitable.

Yet, even though Marx was more explicit than others about it, getting to the point of saying that history only goes in one direction, the thing is that by that time technology (and its mother science) already had written underground the new destiny of humanity: progress. The freedom from holy scriptures left little for humanity, which invented some new ones, or new sages to take care of them. I’m referring to the same historical time where positivism was born as a philosophical school of science, and where the conflict between nations to solve old issues began to translate into races for scientific, technological, and economic supremacy. This very same historical time started to move the world faster and faster after each generation, and incrementing the scale of every human action.

This optimism lasted until the First World War: a conflict so scandalously devastating that not even nightmares were able to sum up all the disastrous numbers. An entire generation got traumatised from that conflict. So, as the most elemental use of reason dictated, the obvious conclusion was that, at least, after that, it could hardly happen again, given that the whole world understood the insane magnitude of what had just happened. Again, progress; although this time the cost was actually too high, and so the world began to suspect or be sceptical about the alleged good of scientific and technological developments: the immeasurable carnage that was the First World War would have never been possible without the intervention of science.

Of course we all know that then came a second World War, not so long after that, even worse than the previous one. And the cherry on top this time was that it ended with no less than the atomic bomb: a tecnological device born from the purest and most advanced science, that for the first time in human history allowed for credible and immediate threats of extinction for humans and everything else along with them. And even with all that, it also left the world in a state of “Cold War” for half a century, and we may even tell without much shame that this stuff didn’t ever end and still goes on.

“Please take note of that last thing I wrote: progress is dead. Nobody sane today who has read a book can speak of “progress” without hesitating at least once.”Those few paragraphs (back there in this text) are nothing but a brief history of modernity: an age in human history. And the idea of progress is but a child of modern times: it was born in it, and died with it.

Please take note of that last thing I wrote: progress is dead. Nobody sane today who has read a book can speak of “progress” without hesitating at least once. Progress was literally the flag of our darkest hours in history, and it left the world with deep wounds not yet healed. Speaking about “progress” today, in abstract terms like these, isolated from society, is simply denialist.

But it also happens to be the case that the story of modernity and progress is the story of scientific technocracies. In fact, “technocracy” as a term is quite modern. The rise of economics as a cornerstone and central mandate for modern societies is a consequence of the same ideological biases that gave rise to the other things: the anthropocentrism from renaissance, in union with modern technological optimism. With those two ingredients mixed together as rational basis, it was obvious we would understand or view anything as an object of scientific study waiting to be exploited by the forces of human production.

“This way we reach that article from the beginning, “when progress is backwards”, where the people from Sabotage Linux ask themselves if this isn’t “corruption” or what’s behind such non-progress.”And who’s better qualified, in times like that, for handling such tasks, than scientists, and to a lesser extent technicians? It’s clear that, having at their disposition objective and unquestionable knowledge, scientists and technicians know better than anybody else what to do, always. And if by some strange exception they would do something incorrect, it can only be explained by subjective deviations: as could be ignorance, corrupt personal interests, or even mental incapacity (idiocy).

This way we reach that article from the beginning, “when progress is backwards”, where the people from Sabotage Linux ask themselves if this isn’t “corruption” or what’s behind such non-progress.

It happens to be true that informatics is a somewhat young as a discipline. It was born in the XX century, and over the past 40 or 50 years it hasn’t stopped its “technological progress”, emulating in a dizzying way all the steps the rest of the scientific and technological disciplines had done before, in previous centuries: first ingenuity, then optimistic, and eventually positivist and technocratic. And so today we look at each other in disbelief while flat-Earthers are almost every day becoming less marginal, hundreds of thousands of people all around the world step up against sanitary measures of isolation in the name of an apparently almighty freedom that seems to have priority over anything else, borderline lunatics threatening the most powerful nation in the world with an armed coup based on deliriant conspirational theories, and there seems to be not a single place in the entire world that is not every day more polarised and on the brink of social conflict. From our field, it seems to me… it is short-sighted, even when maybe a step in the right direction, to ask ourselves in this context something about the progress in gtk or python, while telecommunications are our very tanks and bombers since decades now, and the Internet has become our own atomic bomb.

Perhaps it is time for informatics to learn to question the very idea of progress.

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