A Mountain of Magical Thinking

At the beginning of The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s classic Bildungsroman, Hans Castorp visits a sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps. Originally intending a short visit, Castorp ends up spending seven years in the small town of Davos, transforming from a callow youth to a cosmopolitan man headed for the killing fields of World War One.

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The magic mountains of Davos

Last week, I too was in Davos, but as part of the academic contingent there to entertain and perhaps edify attendees at the 2016 World Economic Forum. While I had no personal epiphany as radical as Castorp’s,  I returned home with an unsettled sense of how “global thought leaders” and corporate captains perceive the technological future.1

The WEF invited me to Davos to participate in several panels related to the meeting’s theme – “Mastering the 4th Industrial Revolution.” What is that, you ask? Well…the First Industrial Revolution began, one could argue, in the 18th century, as coal-fueled steam engines began to replace human power. Late in the 19th century, a Second Industrial Revolution began to unfold as electricity and mass production complemented the rise of telegraphic communication, railroads, radio, automobility, and air travel. Then, around 1970, some might argue that a Third Industrial Revolution, marked by the growing importance of an information economy and digital computers emerged.

Which brings us to now. Sometime soon, WEF leader Klaus Schwab predicts, a suite of new technologies – robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech – will mature and converge. These, the claim goes, will fuse “the physical, digital, and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies, and industries.” Some experts, of course, will recognize this as another version of “converging technologies” which, for example, people at the National Science Foundation started talking about 15 years ago. Given that all sorts of past technologies – nuclear power, in the 1950s, for example – have been seen as harbingers of a massive industrial shift, the concept of a 4th Industrial Revolution is problematic, at least to a historian.

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<“Yes!” cried the techno-optimists, “Can I get a hallelujah?”>

Historians can, of course, find much to critique in the WEF’s schema – from the question of periodization (historians’ favorite cocktail party game) to the fact that past industrial revolutions overlapped with one another in significant ways (we are still living in a world powered and imperiled by First Revolution energy sources as climate change makes obvious). One could even question how truly revolutionary recent technological changes were, as Robert Gordon’s new book does.

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 that!” 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.

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My Betazone talk…the screen behind me generated a huge amount of heat.

On the WEF’s opening day, I addressed a large audience of business people, politicos, and tech gurus on the history of industrial revolutions – the talk is here. The format was what the WEF folks call a “Betazone.” Nobody knew the term’s origins – maybe “beta” for testing out new ideas? – but imagine it as a TED talk minus the giant TED-red circle where the speaker stands. I stood in front of an LED screen some 30 feet long and 10 feet high – which generates gorgeous images as well as obscene amounts of heat in a room that is already heated to Swiss-level comfort – and gave a talk that tried to find a balance between erudition and superficiality.

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.”

I focused my talk on three main points about technology that we might find if we venture out of the shadow that innovation casts over much of our thinking.2

“Technology ≠ Things”

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Image courtesy http://www.menzelphoto.com/

To make messy and complex technological systems – something like the phone system, for example – work properly demands order and regularity. In the past, this meant adopting technical standards. Largely ignored, often invisible, standards created stability in technological systems. Whether it’s screws or shipping containers, standards transformed the novel into mundane, and made the local into the global. But making standards then or now wasn’t about making new things per se…rather, it meant creating consensus about technology. These same sort of social processes, I suggested, would be critical for any future Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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“Technologies Stack”

Although technology is not just things, there’s no denying its material basis. But, over the course of time, technologies stack…their physical presence settles like sediment on top of one another. But, industrial revolutions were distributed unequally in place and time. The technological world wasn’t flat. Today, we are still living in this lumpy and bumpy world as technologies accumulate on top of each other. Historians’ prevailing emphasis on the shock of the new, I claimed, creates a smokescreen. In the shadow of innovation, history gets hidden.

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A book yet to be written.

“Maintainers, Not Innovators”

Speaking of hidden histories, Walter Isaacson’s bestselling book, The Innovators, tells a compelling story about geeky genius entrepreneurs, the collaborations they formed, and their revolutionary ideas for computer and electronics. But, I proposed, if we spend too much time thinking about innovation, we lose sight of what most scientists and engineers actually did – and still do. So – imagine a book like The Innovators…but let’s give it a different title – maybe call it The Maintainers. This hypothetical book would reveal activities essential for sustaining industrial revolutions. This book would shift our gaze from Manchester, Detroit and Silicon Valley to a wider global infrastructure. This book would be more about continuity than disruption. It would tell stories about repair, re-use, and sometimes the rejection of innovation.

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 were in the Betazone room so my ideas got some extra amplification.

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At Davos, I was a wanderer in a fog of techno-optimism

But no talk – certainly not one by a non-celebrity historian – could staunch the relentless flood of techno-enthusiasm that coursed through the entire WEF program. So, like once-naïve Hans Castorp, five days of talks and dinners – where the prevailing ideology of innovation, disruption, and entrepreneurship loomed like Jakobshorn Mountain over Davos – made me a little wiser to the workings of the WEF.

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KAIST engineers showing off HUBO, the first robot attendee at Davos.

A Google VP decried privacy regulations as blocking 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. A Philips executive predicted the replacement of human truck drivers by a wave of automation. 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 will provide,” one said; another professed confidence in the power of scientific research to produce a solution. Magical thinking abounded.

On the train ride back to Zürich, I imagined myself for a moment as some sort of techno-Moses, coming down from the mountain bearing scribblings etched via molecular beams onto silicon tablets. But the messages, I realized, were familiar, even banal.

For those best positioned to reap the rewards of “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 reflect an intellectual monoculture that favors a corporate point of view. So, the result is a relentlessly enthusiastic and optimistic perspective about the technological future.  Q.E.D..

Unlike poor Hans Castorp, I didn’t need to spend much time in Davos to find my enlightenment. Such was my week of magical thinking.


  1. If you’re curious about the overall Davos vibe, Nick Paumgarten’s 2012 New Yorker article is spot on. []
  2. As the proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child. I benefitted from many conversations over the past several weeks with colleagues in my scholarly community: Ann Johnson, Lee Vinsel, Nelson Lichtenstein, Ron Kline, Andy Russell, Cyrus Mody, Amy Slaton, Ben Gross, Nathan Ensmenger, Jonathan Coopersmith, Tom Lassman, Michael Gordin, Richard John, and some others who I have shamefully forgotten. If you’re really interested, here’s a draft of my talk. []