Silicon Gospel: Byron Reese's "Infinite Progess"
By Jathan SadowskiApril 26, 2013
Infinite Progress by Byron Reese
SILICON VALLEY already has a storied tradition of trying to predict the future, thanks to oracular figures such as Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, and Peter Diamandis. Yet the tech industry’s newest prophet is somehow unrivaled in his scope and vapidity — quite the task in its own right. Byron Reese, chief innovation officer at the California-based content farm Demand Media, is the latest to hear the digitized hymns of the internet Gods, and, like a faithful apostle, he leaps at the chance to sing their praises. His breathless, 312-page display of devotion, Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War, is unabashedly confident that humankind is heading toward a world that will be free of the subtitular scourges.
Even though Reese himself resides in Austin, Texas — that mecca of all things cool, “weird,” and hip, not to mention a site of technophile pilgrimage during its annual South by Southwest festival — he is the embodiment of what the British theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have called “the Californian Ideology.” Emerging in the early 1990s, this ideology is a paradoxical fusion of the freewheeling sensibilities exemplified by the New Left hippies and the capitalistic drive of the neoliberal New Right, with digital technologies serving as the binding agent. A self-proclaimed technological optimist who “love[s] thinking about the future,” Reese attempts to defend against accusations of being a techno-utopian by agreeing that technologies can only solve technical problems: after all, they “won’t cure gluttony, envy, vanity, sloth, pride, or jealousy.” But this platitude is meaningless, because he recasts nearly every problem in technical terms, which often requires mixing up a sour cocktail of reductionism and imaginative fantasy.
Reese is quick to assure us that, besides being a successful businessman, he is “also a historian with a full understanding of how poverty, disease, ignorance, famine, and war have dominated life on this planet.” To be sure, it’s commendable that he sees the value of history, but his conception of being a “historian” consists largely of cobbling together a series of cherry-picked and underdeveloped vignettes. Over and over again we’re told that there’s simply no historical analogue for the “Internet Renaissance,” which “dwarfs by a hundredfold, a thousandfold, the Renaissance of Europe.” This is because “[o]n the Internet […] almost everyone creates, in one form or another.” Who knew that crafting pithy tweets, distinctive “about me” paragraphs, and clever LOLcat captions is all it took to pwn Leonardo da Vinci?
All of this potted history leads up to Infinite Progress’s main event, in which Reese describes our brave new near-future and how it will be free from Ignorance, Disease, etc. He dedicates a section to each scourge and lays out his “arguments” for how each will be extinguished. (In an act of pedantic pseudo-precision, he begins each chapter with a definition of the problem at hand, which he carefully cuts and pastes from Dictionary.com.)
So what’s to become of Ignorance, for instance? It will be no more, provided every person on earth constructs a complete “Digital Echo,” which is Reese’s version of extreme lifelogging: all the things you’ve ever done, places you’ve ever been, and bodily functions you’ve ever performed, digitally tracked and stored. Sound a bit Orwellian? Fear not — Reese swiftly placates his potential critics: “To avoid privacy issues at this point, let’s stipulate that everything is recorded only for your future reference. Just for you.” And if you’re not convinced by an executive’s promise, it doesn’t really matter because, as he rhetorically muses, “Isn’t this the direction technology inevitably is heading? Whether you love it or hate it, do you doubt it will happen?” You can’t fight the “natural” progression of technology; to resist it is to end up on the wrong side of history — the Ignorant side.
The reason for each of us to busy ourselves producing Digital Echoes, according to Reese, is so all of our anonymous personal information can be dumped into one “planet-wide memory system.” How exactly this system might be implemented is left nebulous, but for Reese it’s an imperative: “What we can do — and should begin to do — is to track every choice and every outcome for every human being on the planet, and use machines to analyze that data.” This way, thanks to sophisticated algorithms, endless correlations will be drawn and that can be applied to all aspects of life. Of course, there will once again be people who are reluctant to pitch their Digital Echo into the collective memory pool, but Reese is sure that, once they do, “they will contribute to the greater good. They will become part of the solution.” I can hear the Borg mantra now: “You will be assimilated!”
Reese’s idea of ending Ignorance, then, has nothing to do with helping individuals develop the skills needed to learn, analyze, and make prudent or ethical choices. Rather, these abilities are outsourced to some omniscient recommendation engine — he uses Amazon.com’s recommendation feature as a baseline to build from — that scours the database of global Digital Echoes for shortcuts. Setting aside how implausible and fantastic all this sounds, would Reese’s scheme, even supposing it were successful, really sound the death knell of Ignorance? Or would it mean the end of thinking, and maybe even moral reasoning? Why decide when you can just defer?
The Digital Echo is a key innovation that Reese will rely on again and again in Infinite Progress. It forms the backbone for his claims that the 21st century will see “the full spectrum of human ailments, vanquished from the globe.” The recipe for eradicating Disease is easy enough: take all the data on illness from the global Digital Echo; apply mammoth, weapons-grade analytics (“we can make all of history a controlled test and then sift through the trillions of pieces of data for meaningful information”); gesture toward the inextricable advancement of, in this case, medical progress; toss in a strong belief in geneticism; and pause to observe, smugly, that the internet has dropped the transaction cost of doing all this research to nearly nil. Sugar to taste, and there you have it: a world free of ills.
Next victim. In order to understand how anything that looks like Poverty as we know it today can be eliminated — in fact, as Reese bemoans, we’re more likely to keep redefining it upward — we need only open our eyes to the possibility of a post-scarcity planet where energy is too cheap to meter and too clean to worry about, and material goods are abundant. But, to get there, Reese first has to give us a quick lesson in Randian economics, which teaches that “poverty is an indictment of government, not a reflection of some underlying natural limit.” Reese is positive that free enterprise, if left more or less alone, will catapult us forward into a better future; in the meantime, inequality is the natural order of life. If the poor or middle class attempt anything like structural reforms, they’ll only end up taking away the incentives of rich people to create wealth and jobs –– which will just lead to them being even worse off! Better to trust the forward momentum of corporations, assisted by the latest and most powerful technology (Reese is particularly excited about nanites and robots) marching onward and power-washing away all of life’s inefficiencies.
Once Poverty is gone, wouldn’t it follow that Hunger would be too? Well, Reese deems it necessary to give us another 50 pages on the subject, strewn with gems of wisdom like this one: “In the modern age, people starve to death not because they have no food but because they have no money.” Fair enough, but instead of letting this sterile statement lead him into a discussion of systemic oppression, Reese cycles back around to his familiar refrains, pointing to the wonders of agricultural technologies to come such as genetic engineering, super-efficient automated farms, and –– no joke –– “the Digital Echo of a radish,” alongside other innovations that will lead to optimization of produce at the “grape by grape” scale. Ultimately, for Reese, Hunger exists because we just haven’t decided to end it. We can end Hunger whenever we please; “[w]e just don’t want to badly enough.” There you have it. Hunger — just like all of the problems Reese tackles –– is not an issue overdetermined by a complex of social structures, political interests, and power relations. It’s a matter of technological deficit, and not wishing hard enough.
Once it comes time to end War, Reese stops to tell us that each previous section of book has essentially been doing “what logicians call constructing a proof: laying out a series of premises that build to a conclusion.” However, since War is an especially tricky case, showing how it will inevitably end requires busting out some heavier logical artillery. He does this by laying out 43(!) separate “developments, dynamics, and new realities” that are broken up into four categories, all of which will contribute to snuffing out War. If you’ve made it this far into Infinite Progress, then most of Reese’s premises won’t come as surprise. (“How can I not include Facebook as a force for peace?”) The ones that do are pretty revolting — for instance, everybody will learn English because “a preference for obscure tongues is a sentimentality” and economic opportunities “outweigh the intangible benefits of linguistic diversity.” In more capable hands, some of these premises would look like the start of a convincing rational argument, but when Reese grabs hold of them, they crumble away.
In a way, Infinite Progress is remarkable for Reese’s ability to overtly express every trope and canard of the utopian, internet-centric, cyber-libertarian view of the world that finds its current epicenter in Silicon Valley. When intellectual historians look back on the literature of this era for definitive examples of misguided techno-utopianism, Reese’s book will be a candidate. In part, this is simply because the book is so derivative. Although he never refers to any of his fellow tech gurus and meme-hustlers by name, and he’s careful not to use anyone else’s buzzwords, the same ideas are all there if you know what to look for. It’s just that they’re all blended up into a single, spiced-up concoction. But Reese could have easily cited a pantheon of other boosters: Kelly’s technological determinism; Shirky’s crowdsourced organizations; Jarvis’s obsession with publicness and sharing; and Diamandis’s future of abundance — just to name a few.
This points to another problem with Infinite Progress. One would expect that a hefty, wide-reaching tome like this one would surely need to be backed up by an extensive bibliography. But the closest Reese gets is a smattering of block quotes that either demonstrate his false erudition — the ancient Greeks and the American Founding Fathers are among his favorites — or lend credence to his visions — here he prefers such luminaries as Thomas Friedman and Douglas Mulhall. (At one point Reese approvingly quotes two paragraphs from Wikipedia –– both chock-full of quantitative data from the Norman Borlaug page — and claims to have “verified the numbers, as I always do, and found them to be accurate.” When I checked on April 7, 2013, the page was riddled with notices of “citation needed.” This apparently did not deter Reese from citing Wikipedia itself.)
The lack of anything resembling real scholarship should not be dismissed as just an artifact of Infinite Progress being intended for a broad audience, nor is it wholly the case that Reese is incapable of rigor. I believe that Reese has it in him to do the legwork necessary to build a fact-based case, but his approach here reflects a larger trend in tech boosterism that Reese has been kind enough to make blindingly obvious. Reese and others like him try to hide their ideological commitments by couching them in confident assertions that are made to sound commonsensical, and by appealing to an objective, external, benevolent technological force that washes over humankind. They dismiss anything that looks like it might involve treating people as part of a democratic society. They believe that “civility is the second casualty of political debate. The first is empathy.” Or, they hastily qualify any statements that might disturb their veneer of dignified neutrality: “these have political implications, and so it is with some hesitation I bring them up.” Reese does not want to get heckled at the next TED conference, after all.
This is indicative of a reliance on deterministic rhetoric in which any vision of the future besides one of inexorable technological “progress” are effectively unthinkable. Moore’s Law – the forecast-cum-fact that states that the number of transistors on a circuit will double every 18 months – is cited as if it were a relentless force of nature. But there are many scholars who don’t see a future of nonstop innovation as an inevitability. The economist Tyler Cowen, in his much-discussed pamphlet The Great Stagnation (2011), argued that advanced nations "have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees [of innovation] are more bare than we would like to think.” But any perspective, such as Cowen’s, that doesn’t fit into a naively utopic, cyber-Whig history may as well not exist, as far as boosters like Reese are concerned. If you disagree with the tech gurus and their hyper-optimistic visions of the future, then it’s you who is being pessimistic, closed-minded, and blind. Any and all critiques are, at best, dismissed out of hand as typical neo-Luddite panic about the terrors of technology. That’s at best; at worst, critics of the Californian Ideology are marginalized as blowhards, trolls, curmudgeons, and even terrorists. That’s right: in Reese’s considered opinion, terrorism is “based on an ideology that is anti-technology and would seek to derail the golden age.” Even for Reese, this is absurd, blending the worst of Silicon Valley booster rhetoric with the worst of Iraq War–era anti-terror hawkishness.
It’s not as if I disagree with Reese’s goals of ending or alleviating five of the greatest scourges of human history. The point is that achieving those goals will require thoughtfulness, critical deliberation, and engagement with the sociopolitical complexities of the real world; it will mean respecting human dignity, autonomy, and civic discourse as primary values. Reese shows little interest in doing any of the above. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was no slouch at constructing logical proofs himself, has an aphorism that most technocrats would do well to follow: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
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