The Case for Geological OptimismS

There's a meme haunting the internet, and it's called techno-optimism. It's the belief that we can solve all our problems, from climate change to government surveillance, using technology. I reject this idea. My hope for the future comes from geology, and a belief that one day we will invent machines that are environmental rather than technological.

Image by Travis Odgers

The problem isn't so much technology, nor is it optimism about the future. The problem is that public discussions of both center almost exclusively on the computer industry and its attendant markets.

Techno-optimism is a catch-all term that encompasses a lot of contemporary thinking about how the internet is changing everything in our lives, but most especially the economy. A good example is Jaron Lanier's new book, Who Owns the Future?, about how the web economy could liberate us all, if only we could wrest it away from greedy corporations. The idea is that technology is a great democratizer, able to unleash the productive potential of the 99 percent.

There's a long history of irrational exuberance in the tech industry. Lanier is following in the footsteps of thinkers like drone entrepreneur Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) and NYU professor Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) — who both argue that the internet will bring affluence to us all through crowd funding and micro-marketing. You can find the ultimate expression of this sentiment in a Wired essay from the turn of the century called "The Long Boom," written by futurists Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden in the heady days before the dot-com bust, where the two speculated about how the internet economy would usher in a multi-decade era of abundance and plenitude.

With the high-tech industry still growing, and smart phones becoming our social glue, it's easy to see why many people believe the future will only be as bright as our tablet screens allow. This is a narrow view of technology, indeed. And it limits how we view the future.

Rejecting Moore's Law

Douglas Rushkoff's latest book, Present Shock, explores how technology limits our perspective by converting time from a long, linear narrative into a digital present of ones and zeroes. He proposes that the internet is actually preventing us from thinking clearly about the future, because we are so distracted by all the alerts and tweets and micro-trades that take place every second.

There are other ways that technology limits our visions of a better tomorrow. Think about the way Moore's Law gets applied to everything that technology touches. We don't just expect the number of transistors to double on our chips every 18 months. We also expect that this exponential growth curve can be extended to cancer cures, environmental remediation, and even social revolutions. Indeed, techno-pessimist Evegeny Morozov has made an entire career out of skewering the idea that social media like Twitter and Facebook were responsible for Arab Spring — because so many people truly believed it.

The Case for Geological OptimismS

Moore's law was originally just an offhand observation by an Intel executive about computer chip manufacturing, but it's been taken up in some quarters as if it's a law of nature. The fact is that we cannot expect all forms of change to follow exponential growth curves, even if we are using computers while those changes take place. We need a new way to think about change, and building a better future. We need to abandon technology as a metaphor for everything.

Carbon Cycle: The Earth Is A Machine

One of the greatest examples of a change that's affecting the entire world comes from the dusty, rocky world of Earth science. If you want to know what global transformation looks like in the real world beyond semiconductors, all you have to do is take a walk outside. Our planet has been changing dramatically and evolving for billions of years. It's been almost entirely covered in ice; it's been so hot that there were no polar ice caps for millions of years. It's had one, giant supercontinent that fragmented into the many continents we know today. It's been torn open by volcanoes, stomped on by dinosaurs, and covered with crawly trilobites whose fossils you can still find almost anywhere in the American midwest just by kicking up some dirt.

And there's a logic to planetary change that's even more certain than Intel's next product cycle. It's called the carbon cycle, and it's the giant machine that pushes our planet through climate after climate — transforming our environments dramatically over time.

The Case for Geological OptimismS

But carbon cycles operate on timescales of millions of years. They offer us a model of change that is absolute, but not because it is so fast that the past blotted out by the new. Instead, this is a change that involves every part of the planet, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere, plus the vegetation and animals on the Earth's surface. Carbon cycles change slowly, but they change systematically.

But that doesn't mean carbon cycles can't be perturbed. There have been many points in Earth's history where incredible events have changed the Earth in just a few thousand years — for example, when an asteroid struck 65 million years ago, wiping out most of the dinosaurs, and when undersea volcanoes erupted for so long that they filled the environment with pollutants and opened up an entire ocean between North America and Africa.

And then there's the small matter of humanity's industrial revolution. That is likely changing the carbon cycle, too. But this is change in the real world, remember — not Moore's law. We can't see giant shifts every 18 months. So we're tempted to say it's not real change. The planet isn't actually a machine, with inputs and outputs that can be altered in order to change the way the machine itself runs. After all, we measure change in processors, not particles of carbon in the atmosphere.

That is our mistake.

Geological Optimism

The rapid pace of technological change has fooled us into thinking that there are no other kinds of change in a computer-saturated world. And in addition, we have been fooled into believing that there are no great machines other than computers. Even though we live on one of the most awe-inspiring machines you'll ever contemplate.

What if we used carbon cycles as our model of change, and the Earth as our model of what technology can be?

I believe that we cannot be optimistic about the future until we start thinking about the future in geological time cycles. The future is coming a lot more slowly than you think. Environmental and political processes can take millennia to complete. Trying to hasten them may result in perturbations, but even those take centuries to execute. Our optimism for the future must hinge on a long-term perspective that thinkers like Stewart Brand have been urging us to contemplate through the Long Now Foundation and the 10,000 Clock project.

The Case for Geological OptimismS

More importantly, we need to start building machines that are more like the Earth and less like an Intel computer. In practice, that will mean building with synthetic biology. It might mean designing massive "enhanced weathering" devices — made of rocks strewn over vast landscapes, which will wash into the deep ocean — to draw carbon down out of the atmosphere and change the climate to be more comfortable again. It will mean designing cities and cars to run on the carbon-neutral fruits of solar generators, and algae-based fuels. Our cities must function like metabolisms, part of the natural environment, in order to be sustainable in geological time.

We won't do this by rejecting technology. But we will do it by embracing geology and nature as the models for machines of the future. We actually live inside a giant, slowly-changing machine that we can reprogram if we want. Indeed, we have been unintentionally reprogramming it already. But to make that machine work for us, we can't expect it to be governed by Moore's Law. Change is slower than you think. But in the end, in thousands of years, our machines will be marvels the likes of which Intel never imagined.

Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.