Issue 19: does tech solutionism work?

Cultured meat, New START, protein folding, COVID-leaks and tech alliance

Dear reader,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who could be interested.

Before we get to the links, I would like to put forward this piece from the newsletter of Noah Smith. There’s much to disagree there, but it raises an interesting proposition: what if tech solutionism actually works?

The orthodoxy, which is particularly prevalent among progressives, states that technology doesn’t hold any emancipatory potential by itself. Technology can only do good if it’s deployed in the correct political environment, by the correct political regime. Hence, for the last few centuries, technology has been mostly put in the service of capitalism, and has served a negative role. Technology holds little emancipatory potential in the present, and should be discounted in favour of traditional activism, organising and politics. At most there can be some reform or regulation of technology development, or, in a future stage, worker control over it.

Smith contradicts this. He points to the COVID-19 vaccine development and the lowering cost of renewable energy. In both those cases political systems across the West were and are mostly blocked , which makes traditional activism less impactful. Technology development in the meantime did change the equation, coal plants closed in droves during the tenure of the most pro-coal US president in decades, and vaccines seem to come to the rescue of politicians who bungled the pandemic response.

Again, there’s many problems with this argument, activism can change things, even in a bad political environment, and technology and science depend on the state for funding. The speed with which we are battling climate change is also coming way short, and will require politics. Finally, vaccines still have a range of practical issues, and can’t cover for political ineptitude.

Yet the piece touches upon something interesting. Most progressives today easily despair when the political context isn’t there for their victory. If the only way to change the world is through traditional activism and mass mobilisation, then there’s little you can do in a situation where the public doesn’t care about your causes or where political systems block your aspirations. You end up with leftists who spend most of their lifetimes organising badly attended protests, changing little.

Moving away from the ‘just organise more’-mentality (with the associated burnouts) might not be a bad thing.

1. Climate change

MIT Technology Review - Cultured meat has been approved for consumers for the first time

Singapore has allowed the US startup Just to start selling their lab-grown chicken nuggets in the city-state. A big step, that could have strong effects on our food chain. Today, meat production produces a lot of greenhouse gasses, besides animal suffering. If lab-grown meat can become cheaper than the real deal, that could significantly shift our world.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Air Force Magazine - Clock is Ticking on New START Extension

A good overview on the latest updates of New START (the last remaining nuclear treaty between Russia and the US). Extending it could prevent a new nuclear arms race, but negotiations for it have run into a range of problems during the previous Trump administration. With Biden set to take power, that might change, although a range of hurdles still remain.

3. Emerging technologies

Vox - AI has cracked a problem that stumped biologists for 50 years. It’s a huge deal.

DeepMind, the UK AI company that was bought by Google, has managed to solve a long-running problem of mapping proteins using their AI systems. In turn this could have implications for fighting diseases like Alzheimer’s, and shows a remarkable success for AI technology.

4. Mass causes of death

Insight - The Pandemic Heroes Who Gave us the Gift of Time and Gift of Information

Interesting newsletter post from Zeynep Tufekci. In it she explains the new mRNA vaccines that could fight back COVID-19. She also discusses how doctors inside China released the genetic sequence of the virus very fast after the outbreak in Wuhan, against the will of the Chinese state, which in turn sped up the development of responses to the virus.

5. Great power war

Politico - EU seeks anti-China alliance on tech with Biden

Now that Biden was elected as US president, the EU is pushing for a EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council, a holdover from the failed trade agreement TTIP. With it the EU and the US would develop joint standards and regulations around technology, aimed at outflanking China in areas such as AI and 5G. Let’s see how this develops.

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Feel free to send me comments or remarks by responding to this email. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe at the link below, hit the heart button or forward this email to anyone who could be interested.