Techno-utopianism (n.) − any ideology based on the belief that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfil one or another utopian ideal.

It is tempting to dismiss techno-utopian views as the realm of fringe dwellers − largely irrelevant to the workings of the world. After all, techno-utopianism has been around an awfully long time with not a lot of utopia to show for it. The view that technology will solve all political, social and environmental problems and save us from ourselves is a profoundly religious view cloaked in the products of technology and language of science. It is ‘magical thinking’ that ignores the realities of power and who develops and controls the use of these technologies.

Techno-utopianism is not new, but the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the development of technologies that are unprecedented in the power they possess and the risks they create. This is accompanied by an unprecedented level of control over those technologies resting in the hands of corporate and commercial interests. These emerging technologies may not only fundamentally change our relationship with the planet but may fundamentally change what it is to be ‘human’. All this makes the current ‘brands’ of techno-utopianism different and more dangerous.

Techno-utopians see technologies − such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology − and their convergence − as leading to the next utopia, this one a post-human or transhuman world in which we have not only transcended nature but ourselves. Princeton University techno-utopian Lee Silver sees development of ‘a special group of human beings’ who will trace their ancestry back to homo-sapiens.

Others see “the potential to recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection.” A similar hubris and spirit of dominance characterises other emerging technologies such as geoengineering, where the techno-utopians see global scale engineering of the climate as little more than an engineering problem.

The real driver of techno-utopian claims

While techno-utopianism is the fascinating and somehow perverse face of new and emerging technologies, the reality is that it is not the driver. Look beyond the surface of eternal life, designer babies, controlling the climate, freedom from disease and we see a familiar man in a familiar suit hiding behind a familiar curtain.

Corporate interests, not surprisingly, are the force behind the hype and their motivation isn’t utopia but the more mundane incentives of money and power. The roll-out of genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnology are both good examples of new technologies rife with utopian claims and visions. Both are fundamentally characterised by rapid commercialisation and corporate control of the products and intellectual property that underpin the technologies.

The commercial reality − particularly of nanotechnology, which is commercialising far faster and penetrating a range of markets that GM hasn’t achieved − is also characterised by a strange silence. The hype for nanotechnology is almost exclusively at the visionary level. Food, chemicals, clothing, sporting equipment, energy, medicines, cosmetics etc. are flooding into the market without even being identified as containing nanomaterials − much less hyped as products that will transform your life.

There are several different narratives at work here. We have a narrative that tells us that we have a wonderful new technology that will solve a host of social and environmental problems. We have a more extreme techno-utopian narrative telling us that this technology will transform our lives in unimaginable ways − and then we have the unspoken story of business as usual.

At the moment, the only story that is real is the one accompanied by silence. The business of new technology is business. Corporate interests − largely responsible for the social and environmental problems that new technologies promise to solve − are doing what they’ve always done – producing, marketing and selling a host of products and ideas, the vast majority of which we can and should live without. That said, techno-utopian visions do serve an important purpose. In the marketplace these visions propagate a kind of endless promise. This is the technology that, like IT, will be the growth industry of the future, the next industrial revolution, the next revolution in food or energy or medicine. Investors are attracted. Scientists are attracted. Students are attracted.

Industry may use and even depend upon techno-utopian visions to drive broad support for their technologies, but in the end they don’t seek or need utopias themselves. Industry has learned some important lessons from the attempt to force GM on the population. Initially, industry believed that GM would be greeted with open arms. They were wrong. The techno-utopian views of those in the biotech world weren’t broadly shared and weren’t sufficiently attractive to sell actual products, such as GM tomatoes. As soon as the vision was put in products, such as food, it was no longer a vision, it was a weird and scary manipulation of nature and an immediate risk to human health. They have not made the same mistake with nanotechnology.

The role of government

It is in this space − the distrust of corporations and the new technologies that they sell, that we can see the varied role of government in facilitating and supporting these new technologies and the techno-utopian brand. Devotion of successive governments to extreme views of neoliberalism and free markets are ideally suited to make government a handmaid to industry in the protection and promotion of new technologies. As one investigates the role played by government in emerging technology it is clear that ultimately their role is about markets not individualism and not utopia. That said, techo-utopian views are common in government across the political spectrum.

There are some simple reasons that new technologies attract. Politicians look for easy solutions to complex problems and technological fixes are an easy ‘solution’. Governments also look for solutions that are driven by markets and emerging technologies are market based. As then Minister for Innovation, Kim Carr, put it in 2010: “We rely on science to power new industries, to create new jobs, to cure disease, to meet our needs for sustainable energy, to feed the world, and to bring new levels of comfort and convenience to our lives…Science has the power to solve most of the problems we face.” Perhaps too, emerging technologies, such as geoengineering, offer politicians an opportunity to reconcile the irreconcilable − to see technology as providing the mechanism by which endless growth and sustainability will be achieved.

Both Liberal and Labor Governments have embraced new technologies within the context of the neoliberal world view. The traditional story is that innovation − in other words technology − creates new industries, economies and economic opportunities. Government functions relating to emerging technologies are less utopian than techno-optimistic and profoundly attached to the neoliberal ideology. While innovation is supported, precaution and regulation are not. In fact, any intervention is avoided.

The extreme neoliberal view that regulation is an impost on freedom meets the extreme free market ideology that says that the market solves all problems. There is no shortage of examples of the ways in which government supports emerging technologies but utterly fails to ensure they emerge in ways that serve the public good.

One of the most profound steps has been the privatising of science. This has involved fostering the entrepreneurial university and research institute by reducing public funding; creating incentives and funding for public private partnerships; relaxing rules relating to commercial activities of universities and staff; changing IP rules at universities; linking policy outcomes to privatised processes and more generally demanding that universities become virtually commercial entities. Unfettered innovation is actively endorsed.

When regulation becomes necessary, as it did with GM plants and foods as a result of public pressure, then regulations are implemented in ways that limit intervention and limit the right of the public to challenge such decisions. These regulations generally assume the safety of the technology and give an appearance of safety testing to ease public concerns. We are still waiting for regulatory intervention with nanotechnology, despite pervasive commercialisation.

Agencies such as the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) or Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) thoroughly embrace the technologies they are supposed to regulate. Neither FSANZ nor the OGTR has ever rejected an application for approval of a GM food or the planting of a GM crop. If contrary peer reviewed science is published that calls into question an approval that has been granted, FSANZ will often publish an online a repudiation of that science, without bothering with peer review. On the other hand, they accept industry funded science and data in granting approvals, despite the mountain of science that says such data is far more suspect than data produced by independently funded scientists.

Governments also use a variety of other regulatory and policy instruments to remove obstructions to corporates − including international mechanisms. Intellectual property rules, for instance, are deeply anti-free market, but successive Australian Governments have supported strengthening IP rules in ways that strengthen corporate control over both products and knowledge. There is evidence that IP laws − particularly the free for all of the current system − results in less innovation, but IP must be seen as a mechanism of power and control not inventiveness. Clearly, when neoliberal ideology and techno-utopian visions don’t quite fit, they are quickly abandoned in favour of corporate interest.

Technology itself is not the problem

The impulse to respond to techno-utopian visions is ultimately the wrong game. Technology is generally neutral. However, the technologies we choose, why we choose them, who chooses, and how they are assessed, developed, produced, marketed, sold and regulated are not neutral issues. It is these mechanics that demonstrate that the development of emerging technologies is being primarily being driven by corporate interests. It is this reality too that makes techno-utopianism dangerous.

While corporate interests may have no particular interest in seeing techno-utopian visions becoming real, they also have no particular interest in stopping those individuals determined to make their transhumanist visions real. Some of these individuals, such as Raymond Kurzweil, appear to have both the skills and resources to push those visions forward.

Without the intervention of governments, these technologies may be developed by both corporations and individuals in ways that are untested and uncontrolled. Under such circumstances, it is hard to believe that these technologies will be used to solve real problems. More likely, they will simply further entrench existing models of consumption, greed, dominance and private interests.

Jeremy Tager is an Emerging Tech Project Campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.