Techno utopianism is the name given to a movement that views technological progress as inexorable and leading the way to a luminous summit where the world’s ills are cured by techno-utopian men – and it is nearly always men – wearing Oxford shirts, khakis from Gap and either loafers or training shoes that have never been employed in sporting activity.
Techno-utopians see an end to disease, illiteracy, poverty and even death, and they think government and regulators should butt out. They spend most of their time at conferences talking to fellow techno-utopians and ignoring any evidence that contradicts their world view from sourpuss critics.
Today, driverless cars represent a good example of the techno-utopian view. To attend any conference today you would think that driving will any day now be as inexplicable as the purpose of the human ear lobe. But the reason why driverless cars will take decades to overtake conventional cars is that there are many small factors that when accreted together add up to something very significant.
Take roads (and if you’re driving there are few other options). On straight routes and on grids and with slow-moving traffic they are fairly manageable for driverless cars, the current trial evidence suggests. However, older cities weren’t built on grids, but complex, almost labyrinthine designs and in many older countries people drive very fast and dangerously, so public safety relies on the reactions of human beings to observe rapid movements all around them and understand critical signs for which driverless cars have not been coded. For example: middle-aged man driving Porsche sports car = idiot especially when pulled up next to attractive female.
Then there is culture and its old partner, inertia. Councils and lawmakers are not going to rip up systems that have worked (albeit not very well) for the best part of 100 years. They won’t redesign routes, change rules or do anything very much at all because that is the nature of the local politician and the bureaucrat – to be very dull, resistant to change, abhorrent of risk and unfriendly to progress.
And finally there are people. For some reason, people like to drive cars just as there are many people who prefer petrol fumes to electric vehicles. They maintain a simple fascination with accelerators, gears and making gestures to their fellow drivers. They find it fulfilling to cut up, block in and drive up the backsides of others. Until this group dies out via evolution then driverless cars will never dominate.
Techno-utopians don’t see things this way because they take little interest in life outside technology and they see ‘efficiency’ as being an end in itself, thereby ignoring everything we know about the perversity, capriciousness and endless stupidity of human behaviour. They don’t see the road not taken and when driverless cars finally do become part of our gridlocked world they will have moved on - to flying cars most likely.
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond