In the 1950s and 1960s the
predominant anti-technology argument, aided by dystopian fiction such
as Brave New World, was that technology would allow the state and/or
corporations to expand their control over individuals. In fact the opposite
happened — the advent of the personal computer, changes in communication,
and other technological advances have generally empowered the individual
against centralized power.
So, of course, it shoudl come
as no surprise that the anti-technology argument that now predominates
is that technology is dangerous because it gives individuals too much
control over their lives.
Reporting on the Extended Life/Eternal
Life conferce at the University of Pennsylvania, Ronald Bailey noted that
a couple ethicists slammed the idea of allowing people to extend their
lives. Leon Kass, from the University of Chicago, and Daniel Callahan,
from teh Hastings Center, both spoke out about leaving things like life
span up to individuals.
“The worst possible way to
resolve this issue [of extending human life] is to leave it up to individual
choice,” Callahan said. “There is no known social good coming from the
conquest of death.”
According to Bailey’s report
on the conference, Callahan argued that other technologies such as the
automobile, the telphone, and the personal computer had been “imposed” on scoiety without its permission and that it was important that life
extension technologies not be “imposed” without society’s permission.
Shortly after the end of the
Pennsylvania conference, Sun Microsystems engineer Bill Joy made a very
public splash with a Unabomber-inspired article for Wired laying out the
need to prevent individuals from having access to coming technological
Joy’s argument is that in the
past potentially destructive technologies have always been controlled
and restricted by nation states, largely because they were the only ones
who could afford such technologies. The cost of assembling a private nuclear
arsenal, for example, would be prohibitive.
But the next round of technology
that is beginning to emerge — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology
— is both potentially destructive and well within the reach of private
hands within a few decades. Some of it is trivial today. A teenager recently
won a $100,000 Intel science contest by describing a method to encrypt
messages by storing them in DNA sequences and then creating jsut such
an encrypted DNA. If a bright high school student can perform this sort
of experiment, the floodgates are already open.
To Joy, this is an unmitigated horror:
“We are being propelled into this new cnetury with no plan,
no control, no brakes. Have we already gone too far donw the path to alter
course? I don’t believe so, but we aren’t trying yet, and the last chance
to assert control — the fail safe point — is rapidly approaching.”
The solution, of course, is
one the Unabomber also proposed — man was just not meant to know certain
things and should leave well enough alone.
“The only realistic alternative
I see,” Joy wrote in Wired, “is relinquihsment: to limit development of
the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain
kinds of knowledge.”
Ignorance is bliss.
Of course, Joy never considers
that the blocking off of certain types of knoweldge will also cause a
disaster. Genetic engineering has already created treatments for human
diseases and will likely bring medical technologies unimagined. But for
Joy, letting young people die from cystic fibrosis is perhaps a small
price to pay for making sure that the world doesn’t spin out of control.
Nathan Myrhvold, chief technology
officer for Microsoft, summed up the case againt Joy’s apocalytism, Callahan
and other naysayers. In an e-mail interview with the BBC, Myrhvold said,
“People have made apocalyptic predictions about technology for as long
as there has been technology. I think it is because change frightens them.
What is more the most common form these dire predictions take is ‘this
next generation of stuff — wow! That is really different and really scary.”
And thankfully, so far society
has ignored the apocalyptics to all of our benefit.