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Margaret Mead, Technocracy, and the origins of AI’s ideological divide

Margaret Mead, Technocracy, and the origins of AI’s ideological divide

2023-11-21 08:37:04


This week could find yourself being remembered as an inflection level for the social historical past of AI. I say social historical past as a result of the underlying applied sciences possible gained’t change a lot. What is going to change — I think — is the function that AI instruments and AI researchers play in our tradition.

That’s as a result of OpenAI’s current fracturing has introduced a bigger ideological divide into public view.

As Karen Hao and Charlie Warzel write in a recent Atlantic article:

[Sam] Altman’s dismissal by OpenAI’s board on Friday was the fruits of an influence wrestle between the corporate’s two ideological extremes—one group born from Silicon Valley techno optimism… the opposite steeped in fears that AI represents an existential danger to humanity and have to be managed with excessive warning.

A part of why I’ve been so fascinated by the drama at OpenAI is that I’ve spent the previous 5 years researching and writing a e book that’s partly about how these two ideologies emerged.

That e book, Tripping on Utopia, facilities on the early historical past of psychedelic science. However the e book can be about one thing greater: the rise and fall of technological utopianism within the twentieth century, as informed via the doomed romance between the anthropologist Margaret Mead and her third husband, Gregory Bateson.

Although Mead was globally well-known in her lifetime, I feel her historic influence is considerably underrated as we speak. A pioneer not simply in anthropology but additionally in science communication (a teenage Carl Sagan was one in every of her many followers) Mead was in all probability probably the most bold and controversial American scientist of her era.

She was additionally, for a time, a number one proponent of what’s now typically known as techno-optimism: the assumption that know-how will propel our species towards a transcendent new state by increasing human potential. Mead thought these adjustments have been not possible to foretell with any certainty. She simply knew they have been coming, and that she needed to be a part of them.

If humanity was to outlive the 20 th century, Mead wrote in July of 1939, we wanted “to envisage a world through which new social innovations will allow us to attract upon human potentialities as by no means earlier than… to construct a world which shall be as new within the ordered interaction given to man’s myriad presents as the current world is new within the technological utilization of bodily assets.” The choice, she wrote, was “a frightened retreat to some single customary which can waste nine-tenths of the potentialities of the human race so that we could have a too dearly bought safety.”

A part of why Mead is so intriguing is not only that she was saying this sort of factor again within the Thirties. It’s that, after World Warfare II, she additionally grew to become a outstanding theorist of existential danger.

In different phrases: the identical particular person helped encourage the 2 supposedly opposed faculties of thought which might be battling it out in AI analysis as we speak.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mead and Bateson devoted themselves to publicizing the existential risk posed by the atomic bomb. In speeches, articles, and radio appearances, they argued that the creation of a world authorities was the one path which might guarantee humanity’s survival. Bateson, who was deeply troubled by his wartime experiences within the OSS, the predecessor group to the CIA, was markedly extra pessimistic than Mead about our collective odds. As soon as, in 1947, Bateson spent the evening at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s home. Over breakfast with the physicist’s household, the 2 males discussed whether or not “the world is transferring within the course of hell.” They each agreed it was.

What makes Margaret Mead such a fancy determine within the historical past of twentieth-century science can be what makes her related for understanding AI within the 2020s. She sought a center approach between the dystopias conjured by Bateson and the naive assumptions of the earliest techno-optimists (extra on that under).

In the long run, I don’t suppose she was profitable. Tripping on Utopia’s title is not only a reference to the psychedelic expertise, however an evaluation of Mead’s scientific legacy. All through her life, she was pushed by a burning ambition to create a greater world — and, many times, this ambition led her to miss the moral failings of individuals near her. Her life was a case research of the risks of longtermism.

Alternatively, I can’t assist however admire her idealism — or respect her timeliness. Flawed because it was, her effort to assemble a path towards human flourishing amid the hatred, nationalism, and violence of the 20 th century is all too related as we speak.

Under is an excerpt from Tripping on Utopia. For causes of house, I ended up chopping it from the ultimate draft of the e book. It’s about a younger Margaret Mead’s friendship with Howard Scott, the founding father of the Technocracy motion, and the ways in which technological utopianism manifested within the tradition of the Thirties and Nineteen Forties United States. It’s been a lot on my thoughts as I learn the information as we speak.


In 1933, the cartoonist Winsor McCay depicted Technocracy as a rapacious, autonomous machine (via).


Howard Scott and Margaret Mead have been comparable, and so they knew it. She remembered him in her autobiography Blackberry Winter as “a unprecedented particular person… endlessly ingenious and prophetic” who “made an ideal contribution… to my pondering.”

They shared the identical galvanizing energy of conjuring new futures. They usually shared the identical failings. If Mead was a genius, her genius manifested in her skill to push teams of individuals towards some bigger aim which they discovered, to their shock, that they have been now capable of obtain. “Margaret appeared to reside in a discipline of power that would fight something nature needed to provide,” Robert Jay Lifton recalled. Typically, although, her “self-critical schools would desert her” and he or she would spin out into extravagant hypothesis. Mead’s flirtation with Scott’s Technocracy motion was one such instance.

A so-called “thriller man” with “Utopian goals” and a penchant for double-breasted fits, Scott was like an Ayn Rand character come to life. His mysterious origin story supplied a lot of his attraction. In keeping with one article, Scott surfaced in Nineteen Twenties Manhattan as a furnishings wax salesman and unconventional engineer, “one of many many loquacious habitues of the candle-lit gathering locations of New York’s Bohemia—Greenwich Village.” Because the Nice Despair started, Scott emerged because the chief of a motion which claimed that engineers might leverage technological automation to eradicate poverty.

Element from an article on Technocracy that appeared within the December 31, 1932 difficulty of The Winnipeg Night Tribune. Albert Einstein, it claimed, was “mentioned to have an interest within the motion.”

A wire article from the top of 1932 presents one of many clearest summaries of Scott’s concepts across the time of his friendship with Margaret Mead. Technocracy, it mentioned, known as for “a nation ultimately to be managed by engineers.” The aim: automating business in order that the common particular person would want to work solely a dozen or so hours every week.

“No person can deliver this about however engineers,” Scott was quoted as saying. “To date they’ve been very profitable in disposing of materials waste and duplication of vitality within the varied industries through which they’re employed. However they haven’t considered American business as an business in itself. The time has come when that have to be accomplished. We’re nearing a disaster.”

Technocracy’s proponents performed on the hopes and fears of early science fiction (via).

Quickly, nevertheless, the cracks started to point out. Regardless of his outlandish aim of main the creation of a continent-spanning “Technate,” Scott appeared by no means to have traveled past the japanese half of the US. Extra damagingly, he had no skilled coaching as an engineer.

Mead recalled in her memoirs:

On the top of his notoriety, Howard was attacked as an impostor who made all types of false claims about his actions and his coaching. The truth is, he had solely accomplished the ninth grade, however his prevision of the digital revolution was extraordinary. His lack of mastery of the intermediate steps was one in every of his nice handicaps and maybe additionally the very vividness of his accounts of individuals he had by no means met, locations he had by no means seen, and dams he had not constructed… Had his schooling matched the scope of his creativeness, would he, I’ve typically puzzled, have had a profound impact on the nation, or was he a forerunner, a person born earlier than his time?

The rise of the New Deal, which included figures as soon as concerned in Technocracy, took the wind out of Scott’s sails. After the dying of the girl who had launched them — Scott’s longtime mistress and Mead’s shut buddy, Eleanor Steele — Mead distanced herself from his motion. However she nonetheless carried parts of his techno-utopian ethos into her later work.

One distinction was that Mead thought each greater and smaller. Scott spoke of huge hydrology initiatives through which the person human was invisible. Mead noticed nothing however the human. And she or he spoke not simply to American intellectuals however to the individuals of the world. True, like Scott, she argued that scientists ought to work actively to create a brand new world society. However this undertaking might by no means be achieved by scientists or engineers alone. Each human tradition, Mead wrote, “bears witness to some completely different potentiality of the human spirit, to some particular supply of life untapped by different cultural varieties.”

In different phrases, the worldwide refashioning of humanity’s future must be simply that: world. It might by no means succeed if it was led by a single tradition, not to mention a single group inside that tradition… for example, a cult-like sect of American engineers.


By 1942, when this photograph was taken, Technocracy’s aesthetic was noticeably cult-like (via).


Although the unique Technocracy Motion grew to become a footnote within the historical past of the interwar years, the time period it popularized has confirmed to be surprisingly resilient.

And it was not simply the time period “technocrat” itself that survived. The techno-optimism of the Thirties persevered in mass media, particularly within the science fiction magazines of early “pulp” publishers like Hugo Gersback.

Technocracy Assessment, Gernsback’s short-lived try and money in on the motion’s Thirties heyday, didn’t final lengthy. However the science fiction journal format Gernsback pioneered did.

See Also

Hugo Gernsback’s Technocracy Assessment (left) solely lasted for 2 points in 1933. However his science fiction magazines (proper) have been vastly influential in shaping how readers thought of the way forward for know-how — and so they have been stuffed with tales of superhuman machine intelligence.

A search of the pages of Astounding Science Fiction (the journal that changed Gernsback’s choices because the main sci-fi periodical of the postwar interval) reveals the extent to which each techno-optimism and fears of “AI apocalypse” already pervaded popular culture by the Nineteen Forties. Although these publications have been area of interest, they have been influential. Astounding was so extensively learn by the engineers of the Manhattan Challenge that its editor, John Campbell, claimed to have been capable of guess the existence of a secret analysis heart at Los Alamos, New Mexico just by noting what number of of his subscribers had moved there.

Margaret Mead was shut with many in that group — she counted John von Neumann as a buddy, for example. And if something, she was much more essential in popularizing each the ideas of existential danger and techno-optimism. What units her therapy of those concepts aside is the diploma to which she tried to show them into a worldwide undertaking of mass tradition.

In his epic historical past of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World, German historian Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the interval between 1870 and 1930 was unprecedented partially as a result of “the size of human mobility sharply elevated.” Steamships and railroads, colonial empires and missionaries, telegraphs and telephones started to create fashionable globalization as we all know it. However, Osterhammel notes, though “data of the non-European world elevated appreciably within the west” (thanks partially to the primary era of anthropologists and ethnologists) “it yielded no sensible penalties.” As late because the Nineteen Twenties, he argues, “whereas the East borrowed all it might from the West — from authorized programs to structure — nobody in Europe or North America thought that Asia or Africa supplied a mannequin in something.”

The important thing distinction between Mead and the proto-techno-optimists of the Technocracy motion was this: Margaret Mead believed the mannequin for a future tradition needed to be world. It couldn’t be imposed by Western colonial powers (which she opposed) or by scientists alone. It couldn’t be an artificial tradition cooked up in a analysis lab. As an alternative, it needed to be an interweaving of 1000’s of various cultural patterns: a really collective undertaking.

On this, I feel she was proper. It’s nonetheless unclear if the present AI increase actually will result in an Industrial Revolution-level alteration in world society. And even when that transformation does come to move, it’s even much less clear that will probably be, on internet, a superb factor for almost all of the world’s individuals. But when occasions do break in that course, I hope it’s Mead’s skeptical, humane, and cosmopolitan model of the techno-optimist path that wins out.

• A lot present writing about synthetic intelligence blends collectively into one in every of two boring soups: both grifters promising the world alongside 🤯 emojis, or knee-jerk skepticism offered as sage knowledge.

’s publication by no means does. I appreciated this from the newest difficulty: “it’s as if the world is filling up with ghosts of its personal previous who’re summoned from silicon substrates to foretell its personal future.”

• Additionally try

’s for uniquely well-informed takes on utilizing AI in educating and analysis.

• A 3rd Substack I like which covers totally completely different terrain:

from author Brandon Taylor. And there’s additionally the fantastic by . Usually, the vary of attention-grabbing stuff being posted on Substack proper now makes me really feel like I made the suitable alternative transferring right here earlier this 12 months. The range of views and serendipitous method to discoverability jogs my memory of the nice elements of the early Web.

• Kalasmaic, a newly-discovered language that was recorded within the Hittite empire. From the Wikipedia web page for Kalašma, the Bronze Age state through which it was spoken: “The situation of Kalašma is unsure; students infer it from references in up to date paperwork to close by locations, lots of whose places are additionally unsure… Harranassi could have been a metropolis in Kalašma.” You may see historic data being constructed in actual time.

When you’d wish to help my work, please pre-order my e book Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science or share this article with pals you suppose could be .

And a reminder: in case you are ready to unfold the phrase in regards to the e book, evaluation it, or (better of all!) write an article about it, please email me and I’ll personally mail you an advance copy.

Many thanks for studying.


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