The Techtopian Belief Systems of our Digital Age

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

In my last article, here, I wrote about belief systems, what they are and how they might evolve in the Digital Age. Belief systems are one of several aspects of culture and have long played a vital role in human progress (some in human regress) and so integral are they to culture, they will in the short and long term.

Belief systems are not just religion. They include atheism, spirituality, cults. Even sports can be defined as belief systems. As they have often featured in my netnographic research as a digital/cultural anthropologist, I keep an eye out for ones that are emerging.

The ones below are based on what in anthropology are called Revitalization Movements initially proposed by American anthropologist Anthony Wallace in 1956. These are deliberate, conscious and organised efforts by a society to construct a more satisfying (ideal?) culture. Some degree of nostalgia plays a role in some of these movements, others involve some different future ideology.

Two Emerging Revitalisation Movements

Humanity+ (Transhumanism, not to be confused with transgender): What’s interesting about this movement is their totalising attempt to completely reimagine the future of humanity. This movement believes that using technology, including genetic engineering, cybernetics and computing among others, humanity can enhance its biological and cognitive “self” as a species. It is an incredibly complex set of issues. If you want to explore it in depth, I highly recommend the book “Transhumanism, From Ancestors to Avatars” by American anthropologist Dr. Jenny Huberman.

The transhumanism movement features some familiar Silicon Valley types and leading thinkers. These include Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Maertine Rothblatt, Joe Rogan, and many others. While some say this movement is the same as humanism, I would argue it is a splinter off of humanism.

One belief of transhumanism is that we will some day upload our brains to a computer and we can live forever. Which brings up complex issues of human rights, what does it mean to replicate in such a condition and of course, the ethics of genetic engineering.

It would be easy to think that this movement doesn’t take into account all the issues of human rights, free agency and ethics. They do. They debate and discuss them quite deeply. Much more so than we find in the Techtopianist movement I detail below.

TechnoLibertarians: Some elements of tanshumanism can be found in this belief system, as well as some of the key players in that movement. The difference here is how this believe system views how the world might be run from a technological perspective. One of its most influential people is Peter Diamandis, billionaire and author of several books, along with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, Ray Kurzweil (also a transhumanist), Steven Kotler and several others.

One cane quickly note that they’re also Silicon Valley elites. As well as borrowing elements of transhumanism, they also take concepts from Libertarianism and today. They also lean on some theories from political conservative thinker James Burnham and his book “The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World” from 1941. Burnhams theories have largely been debunked and not proven out. Consider that Burnham thought the Nazi’s would win WW2.

The belief system at play here is that technology will solve all our problems. This can be done by encouraging billionaire “hyperagents” and what Diamandis calls “technophilanthropists” who are essentially “social entrepreneurs.” An example would be Jeff Skoll who created the Skoll Foundation to develop a sustainable world peace and prosperity. They do at least, have humanities experts in the organisation.

Boil it down and this is a belief system that takes the view that billionaires are the real agents of social change, that they truly know how to deploy technologies to make humanity better, with little to no government and all social problems can be fixed through capitalism. That because of technology alone, completely bypassing culture and sociology, we will enter an age of abundance. As long as they control it. So far, this is not going as they planned.

Techtopians generally tend to disregard the soft sciences such as anthropology, sociology and psychology in favour of hard sciences, from engineering to computer science, neuroscience and physics. This is exemplified in the Singularity University, which has done some excellent work and is helpful. It does not, however, have any thought leaders from the humanities. A red flag?

While transhumanism and techtopianism are largely centred and come from Silicon Valley, they have global chapters and spin-off or partner groups and organisations. All largely have a utopian ideal, what is often called techtopia. But as utopia might be a nice ideal, it is impossible. Utopianism like techtopianism, assumes we can be perfect as a species and thus create a perfect society. This is a bit silly since we are an imperfect species so how can we create a perfect society?

These two movements do however, play an important cultural role in the digital age. They are helping us understand how we can adopt, adapt and leverage digital technologies, their role in our societies, what it means to be human when we can and are shaping our species unlike ever before.

The risk with Techtopians is a lack of understanding of what culture is and its role in our species survival, a seeming disregard for history, especially prior to Westernisation and deploying a problem solving approach rather than using critical thinking. As these movements grow, their wake-up moment will come when they run into very hard wall of culture and sociology.

Humans are and likely forever will be, deeply tied to technology. We are tool users. Without our tools, it is unlikely I’d be writing this article or you’d be reading it. We’d probably be either gone as a species like Neanderthals, or being digested in a lions belly.



Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious