A (Bull$!t) Mountain of Magical Thinking

You know those old stories in which a reporter for the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune drops in on the MLA’s (Modern Language Association) or the AHA’s (American Historical Association) annual meeting, drops in on a few panels with arcane subjects or papers, and then proves his or her thesis that modern academics are completely out-of-touch intellectuals discussing easy-to-caricature topics like queering the Peabody sisters or disability and turn of the 20th century American freak shows?

Well, one of ours has gone to Davos, and comes back with a very dispiriting report on the stupidity and naivety of our supposed betters (or at least richers).  UC Santa Barbara historian of technology Patrick McCray has pubished his report on what he saw at Davos last week, and it wasn’t good.  Over on his blog, The Leaping Robot, he writes about his invitation there to give a talk, and thought he’d give the proceedings there a little more respect than that offered by said Times or Trib reporter at modern literature and history conferences:

In accepting the WEF’s invitation to Davos, I tried to put aside some of my professional skepticism or at least channel it into more productive (i.e. less snarky) channels. In other words, I sought a line between stick-in-the-mud historian barking “It’s more complicated than than!” and being a starry-eyed Kool-Aid imbiber. I wanted to find a way to reach out to Davos Man in language he/she understood. Maybe I could even help pump the stomachs, idea-wise, of those that had consumed too much innovation Kool Aid.

I called my Betazone talk “innovation’s shadow.” In the time I had, I wanted to gently question some of the concepts of a 4th Industrial Revolution. I also hoped, to pour some mild acid on the prevailing innovation-centric view of technology that gives far too much agency to entrepreneurs and other “creative disrupters.”

HA-hahaha!  His talk cautioning against techno-utopianism, which boiled down to the historian’s counsel always, which is that “it’s complicated,” but in a very interesting and accessible fashion (read his three bullet point summary) got a good reception.  Maybe he spoke in the language Davos Man can grok?

Industrial revolutions, I concluded, were much more than just stories of innovation and progress. Rather, technology itself – the tangible and the ephemeral was a work in progress. Huzzah! Audience feedback was gratifyingly positive – Huzzah! – as people approached the stage to engage me in the WEF’s courtship ritual, the exchange of business cards. A few reporters nicely summarized my talk in articles so my ideas got some extra amplification.

But no talk – certainly not one by a non-celebrity historian – could staunch the pervasive and relentless flood of techno-enthusiasm that coursed through the entire WEF meeting. So, like once-naïve Hans Castorp, I spent the rest of my time listening to talks and attending dinners where the prevailing ideology of innovation, disruption, and entrepreneur-led technological change stood as prominent as Jakobshorn Mountain over Davos itself.

Behold, it gets worse once he gets into a few specific details:

A Google VP decried privacy as standing in the way of medical advances via (Google-made?) Big Data tools. A panel of defense industry executives and robotics scientists soberly pronounced the inevitability of autonomous military robots which could, if so programmed, execute a selective part – say, all males between 15 and 50 – of an enemy city. When asked if climate change could be solved in the next half-century, a group of business leaders enthusiastically said “Yes!” How could this happen? “The market!” one said. Another professed confidence in the power of scientific research to produce a solution. Magical thinking abounded.

.       .       .       .       .

For those best positioned to reap the rewards of “innovation” and “disruption,” of course it seems that technological innovation offers the best solutions to the world’s problems. So it’s no surprise that those in the innovation business are unlikely to question its ideological underpinnings. Innovation-centric proclamations about a 4th Industrial Revolution are therefore inclined to ignore the perspective of workers and others who will be “disrupted” by it. Public discussions about technology at places like Davos reflects an intellectual monoculture that favors a corporate point of view. And result is a perspective relentlessly enthusiastic and optimistic about the technological future. Q.E.D..

McCray’s report almost makes working in the “intellectual monoculture,” that is, the politically correct hellhole of the modern university, with its two-minute hates, its Stalinist purges, and its Ellen Jamesian feminazi tyrants with their trigger-warnings and safe spaces, look kind of like the more creative and intellectually open option, doesn’t it?

McCray’s title for his blog post, “A Mountain of Magical Thinking,” put me in mind of this very snarky, not at all politically correct designation for the Fox News Channel from Jon Stewart’s years on The Daily Show:  Bull$h!t Mountain.


10 thoughts on “A (Bull$!t) Mountain of Magical Thinking

  1. I want to read the Robert Gordon book Patrick McCray mentioned. I read Krugman’s review a couple of days ago with interest.

    Sometimes I wonder if the only thing the so called Third Industrial Revolution created was improved digital tools for rent seeking by the capitalist class. I doubt that the 4th IR will be any different (should AI, biotechnology, smart refrigerators, or any of the other magic ponies of the techno futurist apocalypse make the scene).

    Thanks for sharing this post Historiann! I had never heard of Patrick McCray or his blog before. I think might make it a regular read.

    Davos is more proof, if any more is needed, that the international pundit and business classes are morally and intellectually bankrupt. If we were writing about this at the turn of the last century would be speaking in terms of their decadence and dissipation.


  2. … wait… how is the market going to fix climate change?

    That’s like literally the textbook negative externalities = market failure problem. (Well, the real-world textbook example right after the stylized theory problem with the factory polluting in the river and killing the fisherman’s fish.)


  3. Oh, God, the library school flashbacks, they burn, they burn… I went to a “school of information” (they eliminated variations of the word “library” from the website my second year) and it was just. like. this. I could not figure out how to explain to my historian friends why I really, really NEEDED them to keep talking to me in Historian (still kind of hard to explain).


    • HA-hahahaha! Libraries without books. We’ve got one of those “librarians” at my uni, too.

      Technoutopianism is an ideology that demonstrates we’re all captive to history, but the technoutopians are dedicated to denying that. They don’t want to be troubled by any suggestions that “but this time it’s different!!!” is unlikely.


      • Oh, absolutely re the denial of history. I had one professor who said in class that historians just weren’t “effective” because they only studied the past — just think how more effective they’d be if they studied THE FUTURE!!! (Wait, why is the history PhD banging her head on her desk??) The whole experience was like being lobotomized. Oh, and our dean was very proud of saying things like “We’re preparing you for jobs that DON’T EXIST YET!!!!!” Which, to someone coming from the miserable job market (where jobs also didn’t currently exist)… wasn’t really heartening.


      • LOLsobs and **HeadDesks** all round!

        I like to joke that there’s a reason we’re called historians and not futurians, but I guess that wouldn’t be very funny to people who think that that’s actually a thing in the world.

        I guess it’s just another job we need to invent, like Flying Car Engineer. (Where the hell is my flying car, already?)


      • I felt like explaining, with mock patience, that, well, historians have this funny commitment to *evidence*, and since there’s really no *evidence* in the, um, FUTURE, it wasn’t really our area…?

        It reminded me of the time I had students each review a synthetic text, and one student wrote in her review of a women’s history synthesis that something along the lines of “this book was too focused on the past and should have focused on what what women were doing NOW.” Um… see…


  4. Dear HistoriAnn,

    I’ve been enjoying your posts since I subscribed to your blog a few weeks ago. I was particularly intrigued by your piece on Hilary Clinton and her attraction (or lack of attraction) to millennial women. The Washington Post has an interesting quiz on its website that I thought you might find curious. Here’s the link:


    Just wanted to share.



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    Melissa Williams

    Communications Manager

    National Women’s History Museum

    205 S. Whiting Street, Suite 205

    Alexandria, VA 22304

    703-461-1920 Ext. 107 (direct)

    804-349-4342 (mobile)


    facebookLogox25 Fan us on Facebook: facebook.com/womenshistory

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