Good vs. Evil: Managing the Technology Evolution

David Perry

So you’re a Luddite. Technology overwhelms you, and you reject it. You desire a world without all the nagging bells and whistles, tubes and wires of technology, a poetic “noble savage” existence in harmony with nature.The profusion of technology in the last 40 years has never been more brilliant, but that light reveals some starkly opposed visions.

 

Philip Atkinson, in his aptly  titled “Technology Making It Worse” bluntly states, “My job for fifteen years had been to write computer programs to make people redundant. I was not alone; throughout the Western world, an army of programmers have been working night and day to get rid of as many jobs as possible. Each job discarded meant improved productivity, and reduced costs."

 

Others see only the good. These are the "transhumanists," who believe technology not only ultimately improves human existence, but will also elevate humanity to a higher state of being. Anders Sanberg, one of the leading transhumanists, describes the movement as that “we humans can, and should continue to develop ourselves in all possible directions. The bodies and minds evolution has given us are wonderful, but far from perfect. They can be improved in many ways, and this can be done in a rational manner using science and technology. In the same way many other parts of the ‘Human Condition’ may be changed through new methods and visions. In the long run, we will no longer be human anymore, but posthuman beings.”

 

Sociologist Marc Smith, however, takes a realistic approach, which, paradoxically, starts off by acknowledging some nerve-wracking truths. “Our lives have already changed. We are overloaded. It is out of control. No individual really can govern it,” he says in an interview with Highbrow Magazine.

 

Indeed, the U.S. Patent Office granted 219,614 patents in 2010, 31% more than in 2009 and 27% more than any year in history. Invention is now taking place in so many places. “We don’t live in a natural world anymore. We’ve actually moved into an ‘information landscape,’ where things like scarcity and distance, don’t matter—or matter in very different ways. Digital forces now govern our lives. Those forces tend to be more fluid than material forces that moved very slowly,” Smith explains.

 

The future is now, the wave has hit—so deal with it. But how? Continues Smith, “Technology is inevitable. The question is, are there good or bad strategies for managing one engagement with technology? Clearly, there are. But the wholesale adoption of everything? Probably not a great idea. The wholesale rejection of everything? Probably not a great idea.”

 

Or even possible. There must have been a point in human history where there had been so little in the way of technological advancement—the control of fire, farming, making a mud-brick house, etc.—that everyone knew how to “do it all.” In time, however, the sheer amount of inventions and technology very quickly became so numerous and so mutually exclusive as to become too much for one person. A Bronze Age sailor who knew everything about ship-making and navigation probably had no idea  how to make a pyramid. The same happens today, when a rocket scientist has to call AAA to change a flat tire. Collectively or individually, we integrate and accept the technology we need.

 

Which is what we have been doing already for thousands of years. (“Our lives have already changed,” Smith observes.) Author Jane Austen called it “the intimacy of context.” When introduced, powered looms (1789), telephones (1876), electrical grids (1882), computers (1946) and email (1971) were revolutionary and spelt the eventual doom for many human workers. Today, we do not question the presence of these technologies; indeed, we would look with disbelief, and perhaps even suspicion, at people who don't have a phone.

 

So where is the technological trend headed? It depends on what side of the glass you are on. Atkinson and others provide any number of dystopian visions, and Hollywood has followed suit. The Terminator saga and Blade Runner are direct descendants of Metropolis, which traces its roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Adds Smith, “That we drape this veneer of transcendence-New Agey-Star Treky world of tomorrow, it’s a nice way of dressing up the fact that we are assembling the tools that will disassemble humanity and reassemble it as something else. And how much do you want to bet that that ‘something else’ will be a far more market-driven ‘something else?’”

 

On the other hand, Smith describes what is called the “Rapture of the Geeks.” This transhumanist paradise is a solar-powered computer made from all the matter in the solar system—comets, asteroids, whole planets—ringing the Sun. As its final, physical act, humanity en masse uploads every individual consciousness of the species into that computer, to live a purely digital existence, feeding on sunlight. Smith goes so far as to speculate that the reason we have found no other intelligent life in the universe is because all intelligent life eventually becomes digital, and looks inward to its electronic existence until the end of time.

 

 

Technology is ultimately a package deal. If we want the good, we must also take the bad—and take responsibility for both. It has knocked down social and geographical barriers, facilitated unprecedented change in the Middle East, and allowed us to witness the founding moments of the universe. To do it, we’ve built a nuclear arsenal capable of obliterating the human race five times over, raped the environment in an orgy of greed, and have an unprecedented array of means for terrorizing each other. There are two sides to every coin, even glossy high-tech ones.

 

But before you start pointing fingers, think. “Einstein, is he culpable?” asks Smith. “Who writes checks for scientists? Businessmen, government leaders. Of course we are going to build the dangerous things; that’s what we do. And if you don’t, somebody else will, so you have to.”

 

And there's the rub. Technology is an invention of humanity (as is business and government), and proves that not only are we our own most engaging entertainment, but also that nothing frightens us more than somebody else. “When our ancestor first picked up a stick,” says Smith, “it wasn’t to help out.” Technology is our avatar and also our mirror. If we do not like what we see, do not blame the mirror. That we heal more effectively is only a reflection of our ability to deal out death more effectively.

 

It might be a good idea to ask ourselves what technology is. Why did we start inventing in the first place? Marcus Arelius, the Roman Empire’s “Philosopher Emperor,” famously asked “of each thing, what is it’s nature?” As a “thing,” technology is that which simplifies many things. And as long as humanity prefers things to be fast and easy, technology will always be around. So what is the one thing that you need to be made easier? Because there is probably an app for that as well.

 Author Bio:

New York City-based writer David Perry once taught English in Japan and was a writer for NASA. His work has since appeared in The Advocate, Instinct, Trader Monthly, and Dealmaker magazines, plus publications for the American Foundation of Savoy Orders and the Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz, NY.

 

 

 

 

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