Kevin Kelly vs. Kirkpatrick Sale: Has Tech Destroyed Society?


Here’s your long read for the weekend. Back in 1995, then-executive editor of Wired made a bet with Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale. The proposition? A bet that technology would destroy the world by 2020.

Twenty-five years later, the once distant deadline is here. We are locked down. Income equality hasn’t been this bad since just before the Great Depression. California and Australia were on fire this year. We’re about to find out how easy that money is.

I find myself between their arguments. Technology produces both positives and negatives, and issues like climate change largely accelerated by corporations make me pessimistic as a young person.

Check It Out: Kevin Kelly vs. Kirkpatrick Sale: Has Tech Destroyed Society?

7 thoughts on “Kevin Kelly vs. Kirkpatrick Sale: Has Tech Destroyed Society?

  • Andrew:

    As a species, we are poor at identifying the root source of problems, and therefore prone to pose the wrong questions in an attempt to solve them. Even for seemingly innocuous problems, we pose the wrong questions: which came first, the chicken or the egg (Seriously? Whoever posed this question never understood that all species who sexually reproduce have eggs – even humans, why not ask if humans preceded eggs?), if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, did it even make a sound (Obviously, not posed by anyone who understands the physics of energy, and its mere interpretation by our senses). And here we are, with yet another example of the wrong question posed for a problem whose roots are poorly understood; will tech destroy civilisation. Not only was the wrong question posed for a poorly appreciated problem, this was compounded into a confused cluster-flop by not simply defining what was meant by ‘civilisation’, but by the choice of indicators for its demise; an economic depression, a rebellion of the poor against the rich and environmental disasters. To be sure, those are all crises, but how do they signal civilisation’s collapse? And by what measure are they the core indicators of ‘civilisation’? The author of those indicators, by admission of the narrative, simply made these up off of the top of his head with no forethought. Hardly fair.

    This is an issue too complex for a mere column commentary, but we can disaggregate two separate issues that are implicitly conflated in this question: first, what is civilisation and therefore what are its indicators of demise; second, how is society, as distinct from civilisation itself, challenged by progress, and how does it successfully or maladapt to that progress?

    Whole books and courses are devoted to the theme of ‘civilisation’, but however primitive or complex, at its core is social and cultural ‘organisation’ For that organisation to be sustainable, let alone stable, it must have a system of ‘governance’, and that ‘government’ requires legitimacy in the eyes of those governed by it. In short, that society must consent to be governed. Imposed governance, typically under systems of occupation, are inherently unstable and, in the sweep of history, short-lived compared to consensual governance. Therefore, an unwillingness to accept governance is the collapse of a ‘civilisation’ or ‘civil organisation’. Full stop. And yes, conquest by another civilisation is another path to that same end. That civil order is thus disbanded, and, as history shows, that society does not resort to a pre-civil construct, like wandering tribes of hunter gatherers, but creates a new civil order in its stead. Roman rule is thus supplanted, for example, by city states, and then later nation states that retain many of the implements of Roman civilisation. Religion, which provides a new set of norms that can give rise to a new system of governance can, in this sense, be regarded as new governance technology, and has historically also been a path to a new civilisation. A topic for another time and forum, perhaps.

    Regarding challenges to society, and therefore social order and norms, all change introduces stress to social order, norms and even stability. One of the sources of change is technology, which are tools for problem-solving. Those solutions, in turn, can create whole new problems, as old solutions are side-lined, potentially leaving whole sectors of society (as opposed to civilisation itself) relegated to obsolescence. When those changes are gradual, we tend to organically adapt by migrating to the new technology over time. When those changes are sudden, ie more rapid than the turnover of a new generation, those stresses are apparent and can be destabilising. However, if the technology is either necessary or superior to the one that it is supplanting, or both, that solution will be sustained despite the temporary dislocation, resulting a temporary but specific instability. The other source of instability from technology is how it may disrupt social norms, or magnify specific traits or behaviours that were there before the technology. Social media, and its providing an outsized voice to hate and fear by a vocal minority is a case in point. This destabilises society, but civilisation reasserts itself by both the implements of governance and the adaptive response of legislation and the rule of law. Only mal-administration, governance malpractice or an overthrow of the old governance and its replacement by a new one would result in potentially the ‘end’ of a civilisation. Adaptation to the new tech, with new laws and social norms is not an ending of anything, merely the natural and organic process of social and cultural progress.

    We single out technological changes simply because, since the mid 19th Century, its changes have been intra-generational, and therefore disruptive within a human lifespan. Technology is simply only one of the multiple sources of disruption; others include demographic shifts, environmental changes and its impact on agriculture (see famines) and epidemics and pandemics (see planet Earth 2020).

    The point being, our society and culture has evolved, and continues to adapt to the disruptive influence of technology, both positive and negative. Our civilisation, on the other hand, remains intact, and shows no sign of reverting to innumerable bands of wandering hunter gatherers, which would not simply be ahistorical, but would defy what it even means to be human. Definitely, a topic for another time.

    1. OT but related to your post:
      I’ve run into two versions of the “If a tree falls…” question.
      “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” Yes, duh.
      But I’ve also heard people ask
      “If a tree falls in the forest does it make a NOISE?”That’s trickier. Noise is a qualitative judgement. Can we say it’s a noise vs a plesent soubnd withut anyone being there.

      1. Nice one, geoduck.

        You’re right; noise is an ‘experience’. Our brains interpret that conversion of kinetic energy, transmitted in waves through the fluid medium of the atmosphere and vibrating through our timpani, conducted through our auditory nerves as ‘sound’ or ‘noise’. So, if no animal ears (with brains attached) are present, then no brain interprets the energy as ‘sound’. But the falling tree definitely unleashed a boatload of kinetic energy, as attested by any plant or rock unlucky enough to be in its fall path.

  • One could ask the same of religion, but it is a human construct, just as tech is.

    Both can, and have be used for good and bad. But ultimately, it is humans who are responsible.

    Some may blame social media for society’s ills, but before the internet, telephone, and telegraph, there were books and newspapers spreading lies, misinformation, and conspiracies. Tech is more efficient, and more effective at it, but the issue is really with the people who create those lies, and those who believe them.

    On a more practical level, as a not “young person,” I can recall the days when each household had a single phone line, and an OTA TV with 20 channels as the links to the outside world. Can you imagine the horror that a “young person” would have, being locked down now, with no way to chat, video conference, or any of the connectivity people now currently have at their disposal? They’d have to read books, and write letters. Quelle horreur!

    Civilizations rise and fall. Empires don’t last forever. We’ve always fought each other, and laid waste to the land. We’re now just much better at it. None of this is new, and one could argue, just the same things over and over again, repeated in history. Humans nay be the smartest monkeys, but still monkeys.

  • It could be argued that clinging to OLD tech; fossil fuels, old food sources, libertarianism, has caused these problems. If people had embraced change, adopted a more egalitarian, vegetarian, high tech, low carbon lifestyle and the new tech to make it possible, a couple of decades ago we wouldn’t be in this mess.

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