by Stephen Knight, January 2016
Given the recent news there may be water on Mars, combined with Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel The Martian, about an astronaut stranded on the red planet, the title of Hal Niedzviecki’s new book seems highly topical. If there can be water and people on Mars, why not trees, oxygen, and maybe a Starbucks? Between Apple, Google, and other rapidly advancing tech companies pushing the latest devices and implements on us at a rapid-fire pace, surely such a future can’t be far off.
But Niedzviecki, culture commentator and founder of Broken Pencil magazine, is having none of it. He is deeply skeptical of the future-tech industrial complex that promises to make our lives infinitely easier, faster, and more prosperous through never-ending innovation. Our blind faith in technology and the future, Niedzviecki believes, is making our lives worse, not better.
In 10 brisk chapters, the author argues that faith, family, community, and incremental progress have been supplanted by a new religion based on technology’s endless and propulsive promise of improved life – a sort of vorsprung durch technik run amok. To explore the new religion, the author travels to places like Silicon Valley and SXSWi, an interactive offshoot of the Austin music conference and festival, to talk to innovation experts and twentysomethings with ideas for startups and apps. He finds boundless optimism, but not much in the way of positive real-life results. In fact, says Niedzviecki, outside of places like Silicon Valley, where office foosball tables, exposed brick, and craft beer on Fridays may be the norm, youth unemployment levels are alarmingly high.
Trees on Mars casts a wide net, touching on everything from governments and universities touting the limitless potential of progress, hackathons, wearable tech, and data mining to environmental degradation, economic decline and inequality, wage slavery in Amazon warehouses, existential stress, the survivalist movement, and even the etymological roots of the word “innovation,” which was once thought of, especially by organized religion, negatively.
This book is an argument, convincingly made, that humanity changes because it has to, not because it wants to. We don’t have an innate desire to alter our lifestyles. In fact, Niedzviecki soberly argues, humanity has survived for thousands of years precisely by doing the same things effectively over and over. This “consume-and-move-on” directive is hard to reverse and, with ever more catastrophic
effects on our environment from factory farming, warming oceans, smog-filled skies, and lots of people living longer than ever, we may just innovate ourselves right out of existence. There isn’t an app for that.
Instead, the author asks us to abandon hope – not in the Dantean sense, and he is not advocating that we embrace Luddism. Rather, Niedzviecki suggests we jettison the coupling of hope to technology as a panacea: “Erase hope and make room in your mind for a less reflexive, far more difficult striving: the striving for meaning. … Speaking the truth about the present and mourning the future we should have had is not a movement and it’s definitely not a revolution. … Tell the story of how we chased a chimera and didn’t see that the faster and longer we ran, the more the ground beneath us was starting to fissure until suddenly we were falling into the cracks.”
In addition to being an argument, the book is a conversation starter. There’s a TED Talk or a Munk Debate in here, which would be, in the author’s mind, part of the solution to our current existential dilemma.