Technology and worries

The Edge Foundation sponsors academics discussing their specialties and interests in a popularized context of talks and videos. The effort is not unlike the early 20th-century American Chautauqua aimed at non-academics, itself derived from traveling evangelizing ministries originating in the Great Awakening revivalist religious movements of a century earlier. The origins reach even further back to the rarefied intellectual circles of Enlightenment salons hosting the philosophes, who, however, lacked an audience except themselves and wealthy patrons. Today’s popular TED talks represent a similar phenomenon, further broadcast in bundles by public radio.

Still clinging to this effort of popularizing science and knowledge (or some parts of knowledge) is the symbiotic relationship of institutionalized thinkers and wealthy patrons, the latter transformed into governments and corporations.

This effort is characterized as democratic in the sense that it attempts to present decision making, scientific policy, and thoughtful reflection on current issues as the input of the many, especially of the enlightened many across the world. But the so-called democracies are oligarchies, if not plutocracies. Perhaps the revivalism of the popular media blunts this sharp-edged reality.

A current Edge book assembles scores of academics, chiefly in the sciences, to opine on “What Should We Be Worried About?” The short but numerous essays can be reduced to something like the familiar dialectic ascribed to Hegel:

  • Technology can be good (… wonderful, progressive, liberating, efficient, compelling, inevitable, salvific …)
  • But, technology can be bad ( … destructive, disruptive, abused, misapplied, misunderstood, unchecked …)
  • Therefore, we should worry about it.

No conclusion is ever reached by these many voices because no fundamental premises are ever touched upon. None of these philosophes actually says that technology is intrinsically an expression of human society pursued by the powerful for the purposes of maintaining power, as Rousseau said centuries ago.

Technology’s presumed uses for good (thesis) or for evil (antithesis) is a false dilemma, especially in the modern world among modern scientists, for oligarchies always utilize sources of power such as technology for their own aggrandizing purposes.

Much of the remorse of scientists about the abuse of technology is what may be called the Einstein effect, not as scientist think of it but as a commonplace observer might. In this case the new Einstein effect refers to science’s most eloquently remorseful representative, who championed through his work the knowledge and technology of atomic fission leading to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Fukushima, nuclear weapons (bombs, missiles, depleted uranium), and countless nuclear power plants around the world that must be maintained for centuries to come regardless of the state of economic resources in the future.

Einstein came to regret all this (synthesis). But should Einstein — or any scientist or technologist — not have understood the fundamental nature of power and its utilitarian nature? Should it not be understood that what we should worry about (going back to the book title) is the inimical human drive to aggression and what to do about that? But the very first essay in the book, intended to blunt all others, is composed by the ubiquitous Steven Pinker, who reassures us that violence and war is at an all-time ebb, and nothing to worry about.

None of this debate should suggest that the original scientific method of observation, with increasingly sophisticated tools, is inaccurate or produces false data. For example, climate change need not be disputed, not just because scientific observations confirm it, but because climate change is the inevitable product of technological society’s insatiability and its absolute dichotimization of nature and human society. Nor can it be disputed that much technology saves lives, but, ironically, it saves the lives of especially those damaged by the very applications of technology, namely war, environmental pollution, changes to natural habitat and food, and acute reactions to diseases of civilization and to pharmaceuticals.

The redemptive, salvific role of technology advocated by oligarchies overlooks the reality that the same technologies cause many of the intractable and inimical circumstances of life and society in the first place.

The Dalai Lama has acquired a worldwide reputation for popularizing Tibetan Buddhism and spiritual themes, but his rapprochement with science, especially neuroscience, will yield minimal interest among the world’s scientists. His effort does not take into account the nature of science and technology, which is grounded on an intrinsically non-ethical methodology (“observation”) with unregulated experimentation and the contriving of acts.

Even acknowledging the moral scruples of some scientists, their work is always co-opted by technological applications that service inimical ends, even while some of the byproducts are benign or helpful. The same producers of technology are familiar with marketing, after all, whether to oligarchies or to the public. One can expect technology to be spun for its positive effects. Marketing focuses on individual testimonies. Marketing’s role is not to address the larger evolutionary patterns at work in frustrating nature and ethics. For example, medicine’s grand efforts today, such as cures for Alzheimer’s, cancer, and autism, quietly overlook the fact that these modern diseases are caused by modern technology itself in the form of chemicals, pesticides, adulterated foods, and pharmaceuticals.

But to point out this obvious fact is to undo everything societal. Only individuals with insight can address their own situation. Only individuals can reinsert ethics and constructive habits into their daily lives.

If the scientists of Edge can stir up a cacophony of worries about which they have no control (but whose research and that of their predecessors abets), then even a newly-redefined Einstein effect will be muted and the technologists will shrug off the necessity of ethical thinking.