That points to another lesson, which is that the remedy to technology-related problems very often involves more technology. Airbags and other improvements in safety features, for example, mean that in America deaths in car accidents per billion miles travelled have fallen from around 240 in the 1920s to around 12 today. AI is being applied as part of the effort to stem the flow of extremist material on social media. The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on innovations in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.
The most important lesson is about technology itself. Any powerful technology can be used for good or ill. The internet spreads understanding, but it is also where videos of people being beheaded go viral. Biotechnology can raise crop yields and cure diseases— but it could equally lead to deadly weapons.
Technology itself has no agency: it is the choices people make about it that shape the world. Thus the techlash is a necessary step in the adoption of important new technologies. At its best, it helps frame how society comes to terms with innovations and imposes rules and policies that limit their destructive potential (seat belts, catalytic converters and traffic regulations), accommodate change (universal schooling as a response to industrialisation) or strike a trade-off (between the convenience of ride-hailing and the protection of gig-workers). Healthy scepticism means that these questions are settled by a broad debate, not by a coterie of technologists.
Fire up the moral engine
Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about the ability of societies to hold this debate, and come up with good answers. In that sense, techno-pessimism is a symptom of political pessimism. Yet there is something perversely reassuring about this: a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all. And history still argues, on the whole, for optimism. The technological transformation since the Industrial Revolution has helped curb ancient evils, from child mortality to hunger and ignorance. Yes, the planet is warming and antibiotic resistance is spreading. But the solution to such problems calls for the deployment of more technology, not less. So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment. To be alive in the tech-obsessed 2020s is to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.