Over the last twenty years our faith in the power of information technologies to improve our lives has soured. Is it time for techno-optimism again?

As someone who makes a living in applying new technologies to improve storytelling and consumer engagement, it’s helpful to keep a long view as to what innovations might be coming in the future. Every year since 2001, MIT Technology Review has released a thoughtful list of breakthrough technologies, and it’s always an interesting read. Twenty years after the first such list of emerging technologies seems like a great time to review what’s happened with those technologies since, and TR did just that.

The framing of that review is resonant for me. They asked, “are you ready to be a techno-optimist again?” I am indeed. I’ve actually always been a techno-optimist, but 2001 was a time when such optimism was much more widely shared. In 2001 I completed my time as the head of product for a technology startup that had done some exciting work but that lost the race to better organize the internet’s content to Google (who had taken a completely different approach.) In a foreshadowing of things to come, we also ceded revenue opportunities to competitors more willing to exploit their user base for the sake of advertisers.

It was also in 2001 that I, and some of the rest of that team, pivoted our attention to creating innovative digital experiences in physical spaces – what’s now known as digital experiential marketing. That was such an exciting area of focus that twenty years on my work is still centered around it. 2001 was a time when the dot-com boom was imploding in the stock market, but the underlying technology was clearly still going strong, and the wide-eyed optimism of technology entrepreneurs was as yet undeterred. In those early days of the internet there was a palpable sense of the good that could come from the democratization of information. We still rallied around the idea that “information wants to be free.”

But something strange happened. Even as the technologies themselves continued to advance and improve, we seemed to see a decoupling of that progress from improvements to productivity. Economists don’t seem to know why this happened. It’s possible that recent forms of innovation like social media are not, in fact, making us more productive. It’s also possible that TFP (total factor productivity) as derived from GDP (gross domestic product), both developed during a more industrial time, are poor measures of our increasingly digital economy. But regardless of the academic reasons, it’s clear to see that society’s techno-optimism has waned.

Many now see the tech giants that dominate our digital economy as making our lives worse, not better. Some have called for breaking them up. Much has been written on their role in our current political polarization. Their adoption of behavioral incentives have come to be seen as addictive. Their harnessing of user data for the benefit of advertisers is increasingly understood as predatory. It’s hard to watch The Social Dilemma and not at least question whether we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in developing our current technology landscape.

Such bad behavior may seem strange coming from outfits that started with philosophies like “don’t be evil,” but I’d argue that it all springs from decisions made long ago, and born of our techno-optimism. In our rush to make information free we confused libre with gratis – by setting an expectation that digital products and platforms should be given away free of charge, we necessitated the exploitative harnessing of attention that now lies at the heart of the most successful companies to ever exist. This genie can’t realistically be put back into the bottle, but the fact that we can now approach the problem clear-eyed should provide us some degree of optimism again.

Ironically, television is in the process of moving away from a business model that bundles and sells our attention to advertisers. The rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+ (and earlier, of premium networks like HBO) have undoubtedly improved the quality of TV content. We’re in a golden age of television with more good shows available than anyone could watch and all of it available on demand. And these networks are seeing great financial success from their subscription models. So it’s not crazy to think that over the next ten or twenty years we might demand more accountable information platforms and find ourselves willing to pay for them directly.

It feels to me like we are at an inflection point for information technology, ready to improve upon our existing tools and usher in new innovations. And some of the current TR10 technologies – improved recommendation engines, hyper-accurate GPS positioning, multi-functional AI, remote everything – have clear implications for improving our digital lives.

And there may be an even greater case for techno-optimism in the physical realm. We’re seeing right now the benefits of messenger-RNA for drug discovery. Recent advances in batteries and hydrogen could enable a greener, more renewable future. And recent effects of health crises and changing weather patterns seem to be rapidly influencing the policy space, which is often more intractable than the technology itself.

As they say, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. But I feel confident that technology will continue to advance and that we will, on balance, find ways to harness those advances for good. So I guess that makes me, as always, a techno-optimist.

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