A rollicking debate on technology's impact on our lives
The release today of the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, along with the recent East Coast blackout, provides a stark reminder of the critical role of technology in our livesand what happens when that technology doesn't work as expected. This week, Next News stages a debate on how technology has changed our lives for good and badthe first of what I plan to be monthly E-mail debates on important issues in science and technology.
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On one side is Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, a new journal that hopes to "make sense of the larger questions surrounding technology and human nature, and the practical questions of governing and regulating science." The journal's name comes from the title of Francis Bacon's 1627 fable of a society living with the benefits and challenges of advanced science and technology. On the other side is Simon Smith, editor of Betterhumans, an online magazine that "explores and advocates the use of science and technology for furthering human progress." The webzine's name signals its enthusiastic embrace of technology.
Smith gets the ball rolling by asking: "Has technology made life better or worse over the past 100 years?"
Cohen: Both. Only a fool would not admireand be thankful forthe great achievements of modern technology over the last century: advanced medicine to cure the sick and stop potential epidemics (like SARS) in their tracks; advanced energy, to make life's daily labors a bit easier, and make modern civilization's great projects (from e-business to precision warfare to space travel) possible at all; advanced weapons, whose very purpose, as a recent article in The New Atlantis points out, is to make war safer for the soldiers who fight and the civilians whose large-scale destruction was once accepted as the cost of winning even the most just wars. Our comforts, our work, our being alive at allin no small measure we owe to the new powers set before by mastering nature and putting its resources and inherent properties to good use.
But only a fool would not also see the great problems of technology, and only a fool would believe that the advance of technology always means human progress in the ways that matter most. Surely, new technologies create new everyday problemstraffic, organ shortages, computer viruses. These we can tolerate and deal with. But the triumph of the technological society creates three deeper dilemmas. The first is the "Last Man" or "Brave New World" problemthat we will become flat souls with little aspiration, living lives of comfortable amusement, seeing everything as a game, a joke, a reality TV show, taking psychotropic drugs to remove the stings of real life, with no loves, longings, or deep attachments to anyone or anything.
The second problem is the problem of moral corruption in the pursuit of modernity's good endssuch as the willingness to harvest nascent human life as a resource in the pursuit of health, and the general belief that anything is justified if it might make us healthy.
The final problem is the problem of sudden, massive destruction, and the fact that new weapons of war make it possible, or might one day make it possible, for terrorists and bandits to destroy not just buildings but whole cities, to kill not thousands but millions. Surely there are other problemsthe possibility of a new eugenics, as our power to shape, select, and perhaps one day design the characteristics of the next generation expands; the way information technology separates people as much as it brings them together, etc.
In the end, all we can do is admire the great achievements of modern life, realize that modern life is here to stay, and realize that many good thingsnot just comforts, but the possibility of living virtuouslydepend on it. But we must also confront and recognize the ways we have lessened, or might lessen, ourselves through our own technological achievements and pursuits.
Smith: I'm glad to hear that you're not denying technology's benefits, nor siding with the neo-Luddites in calling for a rollback of technological advancement. This brings me to your three deeper dilemmas: The Brave New World problem, the moral corruption problem and the existential risk problem.
For the Brave New World problem, I suggest that we find a better name. It seems to me that critics of science and technology have only read three science fiction books: Brave New World, 1984, and Frankenstein. While they're good books, bringing them up in debate blinds people with emotion. There's lots of science fiction out there that isn't so dystopic. Nor is the future set in stone. What's going to make people "flat souls with little aspiration" is convincing them that they have no control over the futurethat science and technology are inevitably leading them to a Brave New Worldwhereas in reality they can shape the future if they start to learn about the forces influencing its development.
As for your second problem, moral corruption in the pursuit of good ends, I don't share your feelings about there being a general belief that "anything is justified if it might make us healthy." In what ways is this true? The only one that I can think of is embryonic stem cell therapy, and this is a disagreement mainly over two points: 1) When life actually begins and 2) Whether it is worse to kill an embryo than to allow a fully grown, sentient human to die of disease. I happen to believe that embryos are nothing more than cells, and that the ethical choice is to save a fully grown, sentient human with experiences and an identitysomeone who loves and is lovedrather than a bunch of cells. And in fact, many religions share my viewpoint, as they hold that ensoulment doesn't begin at conception. The Christian faith holds that it does, and therefore countries dominated by Christian politicians tend to view embryonic stem cell therapy as evil.
As for your final problem, I share your concern. Individuals are indeed empowered today in some dangerous ways. Yes, new weapons could allow terrorists to destroy cities and kill millions. But let's not forget that the majority of human deaths in history came not from individual attacks or actions, but from two things: Diseases and war. In the case of diseases, science and technology have helped us tremendously, and will continue to do so. In the case of the latter, it was governments and not individuals that did most of the damage.
Oy, so much to discuss! We really should get into good eugenics, bad eugenics, and other important issues. But for now, let me close this E-mail by saying that too many people have a narrow definition of what it means to be human and, perhaps more important, what it means to be a person. And too many people have a narrow view of history in its arc from past to present to future. Humanity as we know it exists as a blip in time. If we can survive by properly directing science and technology, where we're going will be far more interesting than where we've been.