Re: Modern Technology: Out of Control?

Damien Broderick (
Tue, 20 Jan 1998 16:35:30 +0000

At 01:01 PM 1/20/98 +1100, Brad wrote (hoping the dog wouldn't eat his

> Why do you think the image of modern technology being 'out of
>control' has such a strong appeal? In what ways does technology appear
>difficult to control?

Hmm. From a somewhat oblique angle, I was thinking about something like
this the other day when I wrote a piece for the Melbourne Age (not yet
published) about the purported telomere breakthrough. The newspaper had
published a snide editorial the day after the announcement, and I wrote in


Despite the beautiful patterns of life, evolution *has* no plan. It is a
gigantic, stupid lottery. In such a universe, we are freed from fears of
impiety. Since evolution does not have a plan for us, we may choose one
for ourselves. In fact, that is what we have always done, whether we knew
it or not.

Yet people find it hard to grasp this essential moral point. The day after
the immensely important Wright-Shay discovery was published, a whimsical
editorial appeared in the Age poking cautionary fun at the `tireless
scientists'. I suspect the writer implied `tiresome' as well, for these
scientific wretches were pandering, apparently, `to this society's
adoration of youth'. On the contrary - those benefiting most from
rejuvenation and an extended life span will be the elderly. It's a grim
threat the editorial missed: rule forever by deathless Baby Boomers!

The editorial noted that in Jonathan Swift's *Gulliver's Travels*, the
immortal Struldbruggs `were the most miserable of mankind'. Hmm - Dean
Swift himself was a notable grump, a dyspeptic misanthrope who never
recovered from the ghastly shock that his beautiful Celia defecated like
the rest of us. Such one-sided fables - Frankenstein's hubristic fate is
another, and the Greek legend of Tithonus who lived forever in senility -
always get trotted out as if they prove something, as if they are *reports*
instead of *inventions*.

Defeating death and planning rejuvenation are no more absurd as goals than
finding remedies for short-sightedness or asthma (I've been on daily
prophylactic drugs for asthma for more than a quarter of a century, and it
has improved my life beyond recognition). We manage quite well without an
evolved ability to read and write at birth, or to fly a jet by instinct.

Ultimately, we might expect to fix what is called `ageing' - the damage and
at last senescence that now accumulates with the passage of time - and find
ways to outwit it. The human population explosion will become an even more
pressing emergency, but we must solve that in any case. Perhaps the price
of immortality will be elective or imposed sterilisation.

Does this also imply a sterile cultural future? Why should it? Remaining
young for centuries or millennia is not the same as an eternity of
sclerotic senility. We will have time to learn all things - time enough,
as the optimistic science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote, for love.

The Age editorial ended, to my disbelief: `Dying (we think) is not all that
bad.' Frankly, I can't think of anything to be said in its favour. We're
stuck with death's pain, loss and grief at the moment, and must make as
decent a fist of it as we can. But in the longest term of the history of
intelligent life in the universe, it will surely be the case - tragic, but
blessedly brief in comparative duration - that the routine and inevitable
death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly corrected.


I think the answer to Brad's question lies in the nagging painful questions
writhing between these two positions: the sarcastically defensive editorial
and my somewhat disingenuous rallying-cry (I acknowledge, of course, that
optional immortality will have an *immensely* disruptive impact on all
cultures, and on everyone's deepest sense of self and expectations from life).

Damien Broderick