Tech pessimism is good news

Technologists are generally optimists. They tend to be driven by the belief that technology solves big problems and creates new opportunities.

So it was striking to see bleak assessments in a report this month from the Pew Research Center and Elon University. The researchers asked 915 people deeply familiar with technology — the group is described as “innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists” — to predict how things will be in 2025. A plurality, 47 percent, said things will be mostly worse than they were before the pandemic for most people, mainly because technology is making life more complex and exacerbating inequality, authoritarianism, and misinformation.

Only 39 percent said life will be mostly better for most people. Another 14 percent said most people’s lives will be pretty much the same in 2025 as they would have been without the pandemic — but that’s a somewhat negative readout, as it’s contrary to the usual narratives of progress in a world that can’t afford to be merely treading water.

There are some important caveats. This group is not a representative sample of the population. The survey was done last summer, at what might have been a particularly uncertain time, before the presidential election and the approval of COVID-19 vaccines. And even though the respondents had to come down on one side or the other when asked whether life will be better for most people in 2025, almost all of them identified both positive and negative trends. The positive ones included biotechnologies that will help people lead healthier lives, plus social and economic reforms.

Even so, you still could expect a brighter forecast from a group that Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet and technology research, calls “a community of builders and people who talk to or watch the builders.”

Are many of the people who could shape a better future writing a script that it won’t be better?

Well, here’s an optimistic take. This level of worry is healthy. It beats the smug techno-optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s, when digital abundance was supposedly about to blanket the world with freedom and prosperity. Now we know better.

Rainie and his colleagues at Pew Research have been doing big surveys like this one for 15 years — asking various questions of varying groups of experts — and he notes that a “techlash” has been mounting in recent years.

“It used to be that technology people said, `We got this.’ Now there’s the sense there’s this capacity for all these big things to be runaway phenomena,” Rainie says. There’s a growing realization, for instance, that “misinformation is the underlying foundational problem that could ruin everything.”

Articulating that is itself a hopeful act. As Rainie says, perhaps it reflects “a sense that these trends can be reversed and mitigated. And it means that these things are top of mind for lots of people who build this stuff.”

Brian Bergstein can be reached at [email protected].