Kirkpatrick Sale’s bet on the world of 2020

The Luddites in action

Back in 1995, Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired magazine, made a bet with Kirkpatrick Sale, the critic of technology.  The bet was that, by the year 2020, technology would have produced a much better world.

Kevin Kelly believed then and still believes that technological progress will automatically produce a better world.  Kirkpatrick Sale believed the opposite.  He thought then and still believes that the world has been on the wrong course since Columbus’s voyages in 1492.

My old friend in Texas called my attention to a 2019 article, in which Sale described the bet and told how he foresaw the world going wrong:

First, an economic collapse. I posited that it might take the form of a worldwide currency devaluation, in which the dollar loses its standing as the world’s reserve currency and becomes effectively worthless even in this country, and a global stock-market crash and depression.

Second, a political collapse, with upheavals both within nation-states and between. I saw the collapsed economy leading to maybe the bottom fifth of society in the developed world, no longer bought off with alcohol and drugs and celebrity and consumerism, rising up in rebellion and creating havoc and disarray throughout; at the same time a similar rebellion of the poor nations, no longer content to take the crumbs from the table of the rich, and simultaneously fighting violent guerrilla wars and flooding into the developed nations to escape their misery.

And finally, perhaps over-arching, an environmental collapse, in which global warming and ozone depletion, for example, made some areas like Australia and Africa unlivable and caused ice packs to melt, and old diseases, released from melting ice and deforested swamplands, mixed with new and spread deadly infections to all continents.


Kirkpatrick Sale’s predictions haven’t come true, at least not completely, but they seem much more probable than Kevin Kelly’s faith in inevitable technological progress.

I have to say, though, that, in 1995, I would have bet on Kelly’s side.

Back then I read Wired magazine and thought of the Internet as a liberating force.  I don’t remember the article about Kelly’s bet.  I knew who Sale was and, although I hadn’t read any of his books, I thought of him as a crackpot.

My idea back then was that technological progress and economic growth were forces that were raising poor people and poor countries out of their age-old poverty.

I thought that opposition to technology and growth was perverse, a way of locking in the advantages of rich people and rich countries and denying them to the poor.

I acknowledged that there were, in principle, limits to growth, but believed that the world was far from reaching those limits.

I thought that it was very likely that global warming was real and that, even if it wasn’t, energy conservation and renewable energy were good things in and of themselves.  But I didn’t feel personally in danger from global warming.

I thought capitalism had the merit of being history’s greatest engine of economic growth, which was the means of lifting up the world’s poor.

The only thing needful were checks and balances, such as strong labor unions and progressive political parties, to make sure that the owners of capital didn’t keep the benefits of economic growth all to themselves.

Obviously, these hopes were not fulfilled.  With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I was completely wrong.

I don’t think technology is good or bad in and of itself.  The questions about technologies are who owns them, how they are used, who decides what kinds of technology are developed and who benefits from these decisions.

For example, there are no scientific or engineering reasons that would have prevented new technologies that enable workers to be more creative and less tired and bored and to accomplish more in less time.

Instead technologies were developed to eliminate jobs, because this reflected the incentives based into the current economic system.  Instead of technologies that free workers from repetitive, backbreaking labor, we have technologies that monitor workers to keep them from slacking off.

If we think of this as inevitable, it is because we lack imagination.

My failing was that I failed to acknowledge the importance of inconvenient facts and difficult dilemmas.

As an American, I was, and am, hard-wired for optimism.  I thought it would be possible to offer the fruits of progress to poor people in places like Bolivia and Bangladesh without having to give up my own comfortable life.  I thought that U.S. democracy had flaws, but was reformable, as it had been in the past.

I find it much harder to believe this in 2020 than it was in 1995.  But Kelly’s view is unchanged.  I don’t think he would admit he was wrong.  He continues to write techno-utopian books such as The Inevitable (2016) that simply brush aside Sale’s concerns.

The historic American attitude is that there are no problems, only challenges.  I’m not going to say it is absolutely impossible to meet the challenges Sale described.  The one thing I am sure of is that it is impossible to ignore them.


Interview with the Luddite by Kevin Kelly for Wired (1995).  The bet is made.

2020: The Incipient Bet by Kirkpatrick Sale for Counterpunch.

Is Society Collapsing? by Kirkpatrick Sale for Counterpunch.  [Added 12/29/2020]

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? by Steven Levy for Wired.  [Added 1/9/2021]  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

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5 Responses to “Kirkpatrick Sale’s bet on the world of 2020”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Sale is a great example of reasoning backward from ideology to what the truth must be to support the ideology. Ultimately that’s a hyper form of political correctness. In the past, it has killed a LOT of people. Google “Lysenkoism.”

    There’s a version of Murphy’s Law that indicates that current problems are usually the result of previous solutions. Well, that’s how evolution proceeds.

    I don’t see a nontechnological solution to the big global problems. The two billion “first world” people are not going to give up their current standard of living. OTOH, the underdeveloped parts of the world struggling to achieve a “first world” standard of living are not going to listen to the more affluent countries telling them they can’t have it for the sake of the environment.

    It all comes down to using new technology to solve the problems older technology created. There are any number of reasons why poor countries have the highest birth rates. Population growth. will come under control once we have most of the world living at a reasonable standard of living.


  2. Vincent Says:

    Apologies if you think this off-topic , but after following your link & reading Sale’s article, I was disappointed to find no vision of A Better World, unless you mean a less bad one. It is surely important to have such a vision, however infeasible in reality, so as to measure which direction we’re going.

    Such a vision, I propose, is inherent to our species, before we were conquered, subdued and offered a choice of unpleasant options. Prelapsarian, if you like.

    The words below were penned by Thomas Traherne in about 1670 but their spirit can never be outdated:

    “They that go naked and drink water and live upon roots are like Adam, or Angels in comparison of us…. But we pass them in barbarous opinions, and monstrous apprehensions, which we nickname civility and the mode, amongst us. I am sure those barbarous people that go naked, come nearer to Adam, God, and Angels in the simplicity of their wealth, though not in knowledge.”

    We can’t go back there but some of us keep it alive in our hearts, and look for a space where it is respected today.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ido Hartogsohn Says:

    2020 is almost over, do you know if any kind of jury has come out on that bet, and whether any of the two has been declared a winner?


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