Techno-Optimism: The World's Transformation Since the Industrial Revolution

When technology arrived in the 1700s, the shape of the world changed dramatically. A feeling of techno-optimism began to grow and has continued to grow since then in the form of new technologies. But is it about to go too far?


Advances in computing and biotechnology are not only transforming objects, but transforming humans, too.

Photo by Fotolia/Dmytro Tolokonov

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The idea of transhumanism that once belonged in classic science-fiction novels is now approaching a reality. Transcendence (Disinformation Books, 2015), by R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell, takes a look at artificial intelligence and cognitive science, genomics, information technology, neuroscience, biology and robotics that are transforming science fiction into science fact with each new invention. This excerpt, which gives a general overview of the rise and transformation of technology since the 1700s, is from the section, “Techno-Optimism: A Brief History.”

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The Concept of “Progress” Is Born

Only in the 18th century Enlightenment did the concept of progress become widespread. Earlier, most people thought of history in terms of a fall from a past Golden Age, or perhaps repeating cycles. (If they thought of such things at all. Mostly they just worried about their next meals.) With the Industrial Revolution, progress became almost synonymous with science and technology. By the late 19th and early 20th century, we see the beginnings of modern science fiction (Verne, Wells), and prototypes of today’s hackers and geeks (Edison, Tesla, Tom Swift). Tellingly, we also see early instances of techno-optimistic wishful thinking: the telegraph, dynamite, and airplanes (and later, movies and television) were all heralded, sometimes even by their inventors, as tools that would end war. The First World War was a huge setback for all optimists, but the techno-optimistic spirit soon recovered.

Science Fiction Is Born, Science Fact Triumphs, and Then Gets Scarier

Radio, aviation, medicine, and much more were changing the world, so the prophets of science got more attention. Writer, editor, and radio and television pioneer Hugo Gernsback was that era’s premier techno-optimist, publishing magazines such as Modern Electrics (1908) and The Electrical Experimenter (1913). His science fiction novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911) included television, radar, solar energy, synthetic food, space travel, and lots more. Even the title is in proto-textspeak: Ralph’s last name means “one to foresee for one another.” In 1926 he launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated to science fiction. (Heard of the Hugo Awards? That’s our Hugo.) Starting in 1938, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction took the lead, nurturing such greats as Asimov and Heinlein and ushering in the Golden Age of science fiction.

For many, Soviet “scientific socialism” promised a more efficient and productive future, as did eugenics and (briefly) the Technocracy movement. Science and technology were still largely participatory: if you had an idea for a better automobile or airplane, or wanted a tele­vision, you built one. By 1945, inventions like antibiotics, computers, radar, and the atomic bomb had helped win World War II, making it seem closed-minded to dismiss “that Buck Rogers stuff,” but the future looked darker.

From Utopias To Dystopias

After Hitler and Stalin, eugenics and scientific socialism lost their lus­ter. The threats of nuclear war, Sputnik, and pollution made interwar techno-optimism seem naïve. Science fiction continued to flourish, but “post-apocalypse” was no longer a purely theological concept. Even optimistic futures began to seem plastic and bureaucratic. Science had become Big Science, done in expensive laboratories with mainframes and other tools that only organizations could afford. Progress now came from conformist Organization Men. Lone inventors and independent scientists were obsolete.

The Zeitgeist Shifts Again During the 1970s

The 1960s–70s saw environmentalism and various anti-technology ideas gain strength, but techno-optimism was reborn in a new, post-psychedelic form. It was manifested in the Whole Earth Catalog, life extension research, Timothy Leary’s turn toward technology, and more. IBM and HP didn’t care about personal computers, so hackers built their own. NASA was too staid, so the L5 Society was founded to kickstart the creation of one of Gerard K. O’Neill’s space colonies. The future regained a blue-sky, do-it-yourself, distributed, anti-bureaucratic feeling. Beyond new inventions, it was about expanding human potential using all available techniques (legal or illegal). Gernsbackian hands-on techno-optimism had dropped acid and returned with a bunch of new ideas.

Today’s Techno-Optimism in the Form of Transhumanism

Transhumanism is today’s edgiest form of techno-optimism. It’s similar to earlier expressions, with Tesla-like eccentric scientists, modern-day Edisons pushing the boundaries of electronics, new versions of Jobs and Wozniak building transformative tech in garages, and lots of cheerleaders and fans, but there’s more. Accelerating advances in computing and biotechnology promise (and threaten) to create not just better objects and a transformed society, but transformed human beings: healthier, smarter, stronger, and with “superhuman” abilities. This focus on improved humans, and the willingness to actually try it (often via self-experimentation), is central.

The other core aspect is decentralization. True, there will be no Singularity without Big Science and Big Business: nobody can make billions of smartphones in a garage. But much of the real action is in using new knowledge and new tools in personalized, homemade, open-sourced, self-funded and crowdfunded ways.

Transhumanism’s Conflict: New Tools vs. Old Rules

Along with all this comes a conflict we’ve seen before: new tools (or old tools, made affordable) not covered by old rules. Much of transhumanism is happening without central planning or permission from politicians, CEOs, or lawyers, so Authorities Are Concerned. Their worries aren’t all easily dismissible, but it’s critical that the vested interests, naysayers, pearl-clutchers, and tear-squeezers not have the final word and stop progress with red tape.

Your Future: Promising, Decentralized, Dangerous

Tesla, Edison, and Gernsback would be thrilled at today’s discoveries and inventions. Looking at the renaissance of “makers,” at the giddy enthusiasm of regular people pursuing scientific dreams, they couldn’t help but approve. Sure, they’d have concerns, especially about the more extreme proposals for human transformation, but I’m sure that Gernsback (at least), given the chance, would have uploaded his mind to a computer.

Whether or not you believe the predictions, whether you fear all this or want to help it happen (and you can!), transhumanism is what some of today’s best minds are working on and arguing about. It’s big, and happening ever-faster. Welcome to the age of Tom Swift and His Homemade Biomedical Implant. (And, hopefully, not to the age of Tom Swift and His World-Devouring Nanobots.)

One way or another, advanced science and affordable, powerful technology will keep changing the world, and humanity with it. Get ready for a wild ride.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Transcendence: The Disinformation of Transhumanism and the Singularity, by R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell, published by Disinformation Books, 2015.