The alchemist’s delusion


Perhaps it was the altitude, but Eric Schmidt really outdid himself yesterday at Davos:

I say this with almost complete seriousness. Almost all of the problems we debate can be solved literally with more broadband connectivity in these countries. And the reason is, broadband is how you address the governance issues, the information issues, the education issues, the personal security issues, the human rights issues, the women’s empowerment issues.

Call it the alchemist’s delusion. Langdon Winner has described the affliction well:

To be specific: the arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order. Surely the coming of this machine, this new device, this technical novelty will revitalize democracy. Surely its properties will foster greater equality and widespread prosperity throughout the land. Surely it will distribute political power more broadly and empower citizens to act for themselves. Surely it will cause us to cultivate new and better selves, becoming larger and more magnanimous people than we have been before. And surely it will connect individuals and groups in ways that will produce greater social harmony and a relaxation of human conflict. From the coming of the steam locomotive, to the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, motion pictures, centrally generated electrical power, automobile, radio, television, nuclear power, guided missile, and the computer (to name just a few), this has been the recurring theme: celebrate! The moment of redemption is at hand. …

The very language used to convey the message insists that the wondrous blessing on the horizon is ineluctable. So great is its power and glory that any demand for negotiations about exactly which technology will be introduced, by whom, and in what form is mere impudence. Only a fool would ask to see the fine print, examine the blueprints, or check the credentials of the planners.

8 thoughts on “The alchemist’s delusion

  1. yvesT

    There is alchemy and alchemy like the “alchimie du verbe” from Rimbaud in one “season in hell” (maybe the most relevant book in our time …)

  2. Kevin Knox

    Jerry Mander, author of “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” (1977!) wrote another prescient book in 1991 called “In the Absence of the Sacred,” in which he details the introduction of the telephone, the automobile and the personal computer, focusing on what their inventors predicted would be their effects on society and what the actual consequences have been. These portraits are combined with the best concise analysis of what having these technologies owned and controlled by publicly-traded corporations actually means. Talk about a book that ought to be required reading for Eric Schmidt.

  3. Kevin Kelly

    If you swap the word “help” for “solve” I agree with Eric. I think broadband CAN help the list of problems we have. (His comment was conversational. Whether Eric really believes it will solve rather than help, I don’t know.) And Langdon’s list of earlier technologies, despite his lament, also helped former problems. Telegraphs, steam engines, etc did help, and even solved, many problems. That’s what we call progress. But the key point Eric neglected to mention, but Langdon is very aware of, is that “broadband as solution” (and all former technologies) will introduce a slew of new problems. It’s the never-ending arrival of new problems that discourages, and obscures the progress.

  4. Nick Post author

    re: “If you swap the word ‘help’ for ‘solve’ I agree with Eric.”

    If he had said something other than what he actually said, I might agree with him as well.

    When Schmidt stresses, after first emphasizing the “seriousness” with which he’s making the point, that he believes the problems can be “solved literally” with broadband, I am inclined to take him at his word.

  5. Snottzoid

    So, what’s holding Eric back? “Almost complete seriousness?” He doesn’t sound like he’s “all-in”? Well….if he’s not all in, then I don’t think I can be.

    How in the world can people believe him when he stands to gain big time?

    I remember this from a classic movie: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

    In Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, he recounts that people, then, also thought that the proliferation of the telegraph would improve communication and reduce or eliminate wars and conflicts between countries (because, actually, wars only ever occurred because of misunderstandings–nevermind greed, bigotry, high birth, etc.). And, if I remember correctly, those who said this also stood to gain financially from its proliferation.

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