317. Fairy tales of technological utopia
In the media one finds impressive tales of technological prowess. Those are promising especially for medical care, with genetic modification, artificial cells and viruses, for fighting diseases. Mobilizing brain signals to steer machines, such as wheelchairs, or external skeletons strapped on lame legs. Use of quantummechanics for new computers. Imitating nature with new materials. One sees sparkles of ingenuity, creativity, and originality, visionary passion.
However, all this is sometimes glazed with a soothing, intoxicating sauce of technological utopianism. Technology as our saviour, resolution of all problems.
But technology also yields unexpected, unintended and sometimes undesirable outcomes. Look at nuclear energy, which we now want to get rid of. Genetic modification, artificial cells and viruses bring risks of misuse, criminal usurpation, and possibly calamitous accidents. That is no reason to stop, but it does call for prudence and sober evaluation.
Similar utopianism is radiated by bobo’s of the digital revolution, such as Mark Zuckerberg en Bill Gates. The more information and communication the better. But now use of the Internet is leading to the construction and sale of detailed user profiles that can beneficially be used to tailor services and innovations, but are also used to manipulate, guide choice, and affect privacy and ownership of personal data. Young people get terrorized by ridicule on social media, become depressive from pressures from Facebook and Instagram to compete on looks and pimped accounts of achievements. Twitter sounds nicely birdlike but derails in the barking of blood hounds. And how about hacking and computer viruses?
In connecting brains to machinery and to each other we seem to be on our way to a collective brain and identity, a hyperidentity, in which individuals are small parts in the machinery, like neurons in the brain, with no knowledge or even awareness of the whole. Will that constitute progress, yield happiness?
I heard one of the utopians quote the 16th century British philosopher Francis Bacon in saying that ‘nature is to be put on the rack’ to ‘own up to its secrets’. We seem to be doing well at that, in environmental damage.
And do the most pressing problems of humanity lie in areas where technological intervention will help? Or do they lie more in human conduct and thought, in political, social and philosophical issues, in partly legitimate grievances of populism, emerging authoritarian regimes, suppression, corruption, wars, terrorism, refugees, banking crises, re-emergeme of nationalism, and threats to liberal democracy?