I first formulated what I call the Assumption of Technological Progress in a long study called Climate Change And Economic Growth — No Way Out? I have rarely talked about it on DOTE, so the time to do so is long overdue.
Back in June, 2010 I wrote a post called Technological Progress And The Oil Leak. I was deconstructing some remarks by energy optimist Amy Jaffe of the Baker Institute at Rice Univerity, whose world view was under threat as crude oil poured out of the Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico.
Amy's thesis about unconventional natural gas, and indeed all Cornucopian (wildly optimistic) views of our energy future, depend on what I call the Assumption of Technological Progress... Here's the Assumption—
Technological progress marches on. Improvements are always sufficient to meet the requirements of economic expansion, or drive that expansion.
These improvements include, most importantly, industrial civilization's need for energy to fuel growth. For example, net energy returns on investment (EROI) for currently inefficient processes (e.g. biomass to cellulosic ethanol conversions) do not matter because they are based on current science & technology. That situation could change in the future.
Then a miracle occurs... Source.
In other words, we standardly assume that technology solves all problems. I concluded [ in the No Way Out? paper ] that this usually implicit assumption should be tossed out...
Amy Jaffe explicitly stated the assumption in an interview on the PBS Newshour.
Well, you know, we, in the American public, we are a big believer that there's a science and technology solution to everything — everything.
So — and it was really amazing that the industry — we were sort of running out of oil onshore, and the industry was able to go out to the depths of the earth, under the sea, and keep us driving around in our cars. So, to sit here night after night and watch all these scientists unable to close a simple pipeline, even though it's a very complex engineering problem, as a layperson, when you sit here and watch the oil just spewing out of this pipeline... It's just this horror movie, like we cannot believe that there isn't a technology to close this pipeline.
And we, as Americans, believe there's a technological solution to everything. And the idea that we're going to have to wait until August for the technological solution, I think it's just got people just gripped in terror.
Amy is so terrified by the prospect that technology doesn't solve all problems that she starts repeating herself.
The alert reader will note that I wrote (back in early 2010) that the Assumption of Technological Progress should be tossed out. That usage was disingenuous. I would never use the word "should" today because my view, then and now, is that technological optimism is built right into Homo sapiens. Perhaps I was offering a fig leaf of hope, but I don't do that anymore. I am far more apt to write text like this, which appeared in my post Techno-Optimists Running Wild!
Human love for technology is second only to our love of money. If humans can replace thousands of fellow humans with some machinery which does the same thing those inferior humans were doing, they'll make that "positive" choice in a heartbeat. More money and machines too? You can't beat that!
Let's face it, technology is the only thing Homo sapiens is good at. The historical record makes it entirely clear that humans can't govern themselves, don't understand themselves, and can't change their own fundamental behaviors. For example, they can't just say No when given the opportunity to apply some technology and destroy the lives of all those fellow (albeit inferior) humans just mentioned. Technology is the solution to all problems, even when a problem does not exist, or the technology itself creates far more problems than it solves. Technology Über Alles.
You can find a theoretical treatment of how technological thinking is built right into human cognition in Steven Mithen's The Prehistory Of The Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. However, I do not base my assumption about technology being a central part of human cognition on any theoretical perspective. I do not formulate theories and then go around trying to find facts or events that support them. (Not that Mithen or any other good scientist does that.)
Rather, I base this explanatory assumption on my observations of everyday human behavior. What do people typically do? Typically, they seek out technological solutions to every problem, problems which are more often than not problems which they themselves created. Thus my reasoning in this case proceeds bottom-up, not top-down. I always reason from observations to theories, not the other way around.
Thus if humans have created (or simply have) a problem which is potentially amenable to technological or technocratic solutions, including economic problems in the social realm, and almost all problems are viewed in that light, they will invariably try to find such solutions to those problems instead of changing their behavior to make a problem disappear or mitigate it. And then, if humans do find and apply those technological solutions, new problems arise from those "solutions".
For example, the third agricultural "Green" Revolution of the mid-20th century appeared to solve humanity's food problems, at least temporarily, but has created many other problems associated with our inability to achieve endless growth.
Thus we typically find that human behavior is technologically oriented by default. I daresay this ineluctable cognitive pattern was already well established when Homo erectus started making hand axes 1.6 million years ago [image above left].
Much follows from this partial formulation of Human Nature. This will be "Technology Week" as I focus on the unwavering faith humans have in the power of technology to save them from themselves.
Bonus Video — the video from my post The Future Is Better Than You Think