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为什么科技没有让人类社会变得更好

Technology and the Triumph of Pessimism
为什么科技没有让人类社会变得更好

One of the best-selling novels of the 19th century was a work of what we’d now call speculative fiction: Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887.” Bellamy was one of the first prominent figures to recognize that rapid technological progress had become an enduring feature of modern life — and he imagined that this progress would vastly improve human happiness.

爱德华·贝拉米的《回顾——2000-1887》(Looking Backward: 2000-1887)是19世纪最畅销的小说之一,我们现在称其为推想小说(speculative fiction)。贝拉米是最早认识到快速技术进步已成为现代生活持久特征的杰出人物之一,他认为这种进步将极大提高人类的幸福感。

In one scene, his protagonist, who has somehow been transported from the 1880s to 2000, is asked if he would like to hear some music; to his astonishment his hostess uses what we would now call a speakerphone to let him listen to a live orchestral performance, one of four then in progress. And he suggests that having such easy access to entertainment would represent “the limit of human felicity.”

在一个场景中,主人公不知何故从19世纪80年代穿越到了2000年,有人问他想不想听点音乐;令他惊讶的是,招待他的女主人用我们现在所说的免提电话让他听一场管弦乐现场演奏,那是当时正在进行的四场演出之一。他表示,如此方便地获得娱乐可以代表“人类幸福的极限”。
 

Well, over the past few days I’ve watched several shows on my smart TV — I haven’t made up my mind yet about the new season of “Westworld” — and also watched several live musical performances. And let me say, I find access to streamed entertainment a major source of enjoyment. But the limit of felicity? Not so much.

嗯,过去几天里,我在智能电视上追了几部剧(我还没有决定要不要看新一季的《西部世界》[Westworld]),还看了几个现场音乐表演。我想说的是,我发现观看流媒体娱乐是享受的重要来源。但要说幸福的极限?那就扯远了。

I’ve also read recently about how both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war are using precision long-range missiles — guided by more or less the same technology that makes streaming possible — to strike targets deep behind each other’s lines. For what it’s worth, I’m very much rooting for Ukraine here, and it seems significant that the Ukrainians seem to be striking ammunition dumps while the Russians are carrying out terror attacks on shopping malls. But the larger point is that while technology can bring a lot of satisfaction, it can also enable new forms of destruction. And humanity has, sad to say, exploited that new ability on a massive scale.

我最近还读到,俄乌战争双方都在使用远程精确打击导弹——其制导技术与流媒体技术大致相同——打击对方防线后方的目标。无论如何,在这方面我支持乌克兰,看起来乌克兰人在袭击弹药库,而俄罗斯人却在对购物中心实施恐怖袭击,这似乎很说明问题了。但更重要的一点是,虽然技术可以带来很多满足,但它也可以促成新的破坏形式。可悲的是,人类已经开始大规模利用这种新能力。

My reference to Edward Bellamy comes from a forthcoming book, “Slouching Towards Utopia,” by Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The book is a magisterial history of what DeLong calls the “long 20th century,” running from 1870 to 2010, an era that he says — surely correctly — was shaped overwhelmingly by the economic consequences of technological progress.

我对爱德华·贝拉米的引述来自加州大学伯克利分校的经济学教授布拉德·德隆即将出版的《无精打采地走向乌托邦》(Slouching Towards Utopia)一书。这本书是德隆所称的“漫长的20世纪”的权威性历史,时间跨度从1870年直至2010年,他说,这个时代主要是由技术进步的经济后果所塑造,这毫无疑问是正确的。

Why start in 1870? As DeLong points out, and many of us already knew, for the great bulk of human history — roughly 97 percent of the time that has elapsed since the first cities emerged in ancient Mesopotamia — Malthus was right: There were many technological innovations over the course of the millenniums, but the benefits of these innovations were always swallowed up by population growth, driving living standards for most people back down to the edge of subsistence.

为什么从1870年开始呢?正如德隆所指出的,而且也是我们很多人已经知道的,在人类历史的大部分时间里(自古代美索不达米亚出现第一个城市以来大约97%的时间里),马尔萨斯的判断都是正确的:几千年来有许多技术创新,但这些创新的好处总是被人口增长所吞噬,使大多数人的生活水平回落到维持生计的边缘。

There were occasional bouts of economic progress that temporarily outpaced what DeLong calls “Malthus’s devil” — indeed, modern scholarship suggests there was a significant rise in per-capita income during the early Roman Empire. But these episodes were always temporary. And as late as the 1860s, many smart observers believed the progress that had taken place under the Industrial Revolution would prove equally transitory.

偶尔也有一些经济进步,可以暂时超过德隆所称的“马尔萨斯的魔鬼”——事实上,现代学术研究表明,在罗马帝国早期,人均收入出现过显著增长。但这些插曲都是暂时的。直到19世纪60年代,许多聪明的观察人士还认为,工业革命时期取得的进步将被证明同样是短暂的。

Around 1870, however, the world entered an era of sustained rapid technological development that was unlike anything that had happened before; each successive generation found itself living in a new world, utterly transformed from the world into which its parents had been born.

然而,在1870年前后,世界进入了一个技术持续快速发展的时代,这是前所未有的事情;每一代人都发现自己生活在一个新的世界里,与父母出生时的世界大为不同。

As DeLong argues, there are two great puzzles about this transformation — puzzles that are highly relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

正如德隆所言,这种转变背后有两大谜团,而它们与我们现在所处的状况高度相关。

The first is why this happened. DeLong argues that there were three great “meta-innovations” (my term, not his) — innovations that enabled innovation itself. These were the rise of large corporations, the invention of the industrial research lab and globalization. We could, I think, argue the details here. More important, however, is the suggestion — from DeLong and others — that the engines of rapid technological progress may be slowing down.

首先是,为什么会发生这种情况。德隆认为有三个伟大的“元创新”(这是我发明的术语,不是他的),也就是使得创新成为可能的创新。它们是:大公司的崛起、工业研究实验室的发明和全球化。我认为,有一些细节是可以商榷的。然而,更重要的是,德隆和其他人提出了一种看法:快速技术进步的引擎可能正在放缓。

The second is why all this technological progress hasn’t made society better than it has. One thing I hadn’t fully realized until reading “Slouching Towards Utopia” is the extent to which progress hasn’t brought felicity. Over the 140 years DeLong surveys, there have been only two eras during which the Western world felt generally optimistic about the way things were going. (The rest of the world is a whole other story.)

其次,为什么这么多的技术进步并没有让社会变得更好。直到读了《无精打采地走向乌托邦》,我才充分意识到进步未能带来幸福的程度有多么严重。在德隆研究的140年里,只有两个时代,西方世界对事态的发展普遍感到乐观。(世界其他地方则是另一个故事。)

The first such era was the 40 or so years leading up to 1914, when people began to realize just how much progress was being made and started to take it for granted. Unfortunately, that era of optimism died in fire, blood and tyranny, with technology enhancing rather than mitigating the horror (coincidentally, today is the 108th anniversary of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination).

第一个这样的时代是在1914年之前的40年左右,那时人们开始意识到人类正在取得多大的进步,并开始视之为理所当然。不幸的是,那个乐观主义的时代在火光、鲜血和暴政中终结了。技术增强了恐怖,而不是将其减轻(巧的是,今天是斐迪南大公遇刺108周年)。

The second era was the “30 glorious years,” the decades after World War II when social democracy — a market economy with its rough edges smoothed off by labor unions and a strong social safety net — seemed to be producing not Utopia, but the most decent societies humanity had ever known. But that era, too, came to an end, partly in the face of economic setbacks, but even more so in the face of ever more bitter politics, including the rise of right-wing extremism that is now putting democracy itself at risk.

第二个时代是“光辉的三十年”,“二战”后的几十年里,社会民主(它是一种市场经济,其残酷之处被工会和强大的社会保障网络缓和)制造的似乎不是乌托邦,而是人类有史以来最体面的社会。但是那个时代也走到了尽头,部分原因是经济上的挫折,但更重要的原因是越来越激烈的政治,包括右翼极端主义的兴起,后者正将民主置于危险之中。

It would be silly to say that the incredible progress of technology since 1870 has done nothing to improve things; in many ways the median American today has a far better life than the richest oligarchs of the Gilded Age. But the progress that brought us on-demand streaming music hasn’t made us satisfied or optimistic. DeLong offers some explanations for this disconnect, which I find interesting but not wholly persuasive. But his book definitely asks the right questions and teaches us a lot of crucial history along the way.

如果断言1870年以来令人难以置信的技术进步并没有起到任何改善作用,那也是胡说八道;在很多方面,如今美国中产阶级的生活要比镀金时代最富有的寡头们好得多。但为我们带来点播流媒体音乐的进步,并没有让我们感到满意或乐观。德隆为这种脱节提供了一些解释,我觉得很有趣,不过也没有完全被说服。但他的书确实提出了正确的问题,并在这个过程中教给我们很多关键的历史。
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