Wednesday, March 04, 2009


How civilized do you think the human race really is? It depends on what we mean by “civilized.” I happen to be a student of history and politics. And when I survey the events of the last century, I see two world wars and dozens of other bloody conflicts, the proliferation of weapons that can destroy all life several times over, environmental destruction on a scale that seriously threatens to make us extinct, and a catalogue of genocides, cruelties and oppressions that would have made our 19th century ancestors turn insane with horror if they could have foreseen it all. If nothing else, such awareness should foster a sense of humility. But let’s stop for a moment and listen to what technology guru Ray Kurzweil has to say, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone:

“In our lifetime, Kurzweil believes, machines will not only surpass humans in intelligence - they will irrevocably alter what it means to be human. Cell-size robots will zap disease from our bloodstream. Superintelligent nanotechnology, operating on a molecular scale, will scrub pollution from our atmosphere. Our minds, our skills, our memories, our very consciousness will be backed up on computers—allowing us, in essence, to live forever, all our data saved by supersmart machines.”

Okay, Kurzweil is a lunatic. But Freeman Dyson is a highly respected scientist, one of the leading modern writers on physics. Here he is in the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago:

“Within a few more decades, as the continued exploring of genomes gives us better knowledge of the architecture of living creatures, we shall be able to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs…Green technology could replace most of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and manufacturing industries. Genetically engineered earthworms could extract common metals such as aluminum and titanium from clay, and genetically engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from seawater. Green technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and worn-out machines, with great benefit to the environment. An economic system based on green technology could come much closer to the goal of sustainability, using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy. New species of termite could be engineered to chew up derelict automobiles instead of houses, and new species of tree could be engineered to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into liquid fuels instead of cellulose.”

Kurzweil thinks that immortality is a good idea, even though population has exploded beyond a sustainable level. Dyson, the more reasonable one, thinks that manipulating genes will solve our problems. His error seems less obvious. In fact it’s the same error. They both believe that humanity can be trusted to wield technological power in a benevolent fashion, and even that technology is a kind of agency in itself. But the history of technological advancement proves them wrong every step of the way.

A fool can sometimes teach us more than an intelligent man, if he makes a fundamental error more clear. Kurzweil with his “singularity” (and believe me, there are enthusiasts out there who really buy into this stuff) does us a service precisely in this way. The error is simply egoism and its corollary, intellectual pride—the belief that self-interest and reason is all we need. Technocrats simply refuse to see that there is an element of human nature that is independent of their goal-oriented model of control.

It’s not that technology is bad. Of course it isn’t. The problem is that human culture has not matured sufficiently to handle the almost god-like powers of modern technology. Instead we’re using them to kill each other and ourselves. The problem that faces us is actually the same that faced the ancient philosophers who puzzled over the problems of political life. How do we foster a civilization based on love, respect, and mutual cooperation, rather than the habitual structures of power, domination, and greed? Reason plays a part in this, but so do emotions. Without taking human emotional needs into account, we have no vantage point from which to understand love and hatred, peace and war, kindness or cruelty.

The techno-fix will not work. I wish it would, because it would be so much easier. But for a species that doesn’t understand its limitations, that chooses arrogance over humility and ignorance over self-awareness, in short, for an uncivilized creature, a barbarian in a suit and tie, technology will only reflect the emptiness and vanity of his soul. The task is to free ourselves from our inner chains, and only then can we use our tools with wisdom, and for the good.


Liberality said...

Very interesting post here. Of course humans are still animals, with a power dynamics over resources that we may never overcome. But we are cunning, and yes, we are on our way to doing ourselves in. I hate to think about it but of course it's true if you bother to look at the facts. As you say, just look at our history to see where we are going.

Mauigirl said...

Human nature is always ignored by those who see technology as the greater good.

Of course Star Trek covered this issue back in the sixties; the M5 computer was supposed to be an intelligent computer and the scientist who invented it imprinted his own personality on it so it would have a human mind. Naturally it then tried to take over the ship and had to be destroyed. Much like HAL in 2001 suddenly got too big for his britches. It's always the way it goes...

Chris Dashiell said...

Thanks to both of you for your good comments. Another aspect of this I find disconcerting is the persistent notion that we can somehow triumph over Nature. This is a dangerous delusion, and the results of this thinking are already being felt.

DED said...

Good post, Dash.

While I'm a technology enthusiast, I'm far from the techno-fetishist crowd. I don't even own an iPod. While I believe that technology (low or high) can solve most problems, it can't solve the problem that is Man (I think you'd like "Watchmen" because it makes a similar argument).

Kurzweil is certainly a nut. While some of the technology in the RS quote may happen someday, I can't see it or the Singularity coming to pass in my lifetime. Didn't before, and certainly not with what's going on now.

While I also feel that the tech Dyson talks about won't come to pass anytime soon, I haven't read as much damning info about him as much as Kurzweil's Robots/Singularity worship. He might just be naively optimistic.

Both of them seem to have forgotten that there was a lot of fantastic talk about what would happen when we mapped the human genome. Well, what really happened is that we learned that it's a helluva lot more complex than we thought.

And how long have we been cloning? The success rate hasn't been all that great. Most of the cloned organisms aren't viable and die before birth.

The problem is that human culture has not matured sufficiently to handle the almost god-like powers of modern technology.


Self-destruction kind of puts a damper on technological progress.

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