ACT: Some responses to techno-fear
Thu, 25 Nov 1999 22:18:10 EST

As I mentioned in a post earlier today, I've been participating in other fora in which transhumanist technologies are discussed by an audience that includes people not committed to the transhumanist agenda. The following are a couple of posts I've made to the "Insance Science Mailing List" in response to fears about and outright opposition to transhumanist goals.

In a message dated 99-11-21 22:56:32 EST, (Dan S) wrote:

> I am personally not for the merging of man and machine (microchip implants,
> cyborgism, etc.) If others want to do it, fine.

This is a crucial distinction, and one that needs to be addressed much more forcefully in discussions about "the future". Far too often there is an unstated assumption that there will only be "one future", especially in journalistic discussions of new developments in science and technology, but also and much more importantly in the political and ideological formulation of policy regarding innovation.

It's crucial that people have a choice and that their choices be informed. This is much more important than the impact of any one scientific or technological advance. Unfortunately, people who are opposed to advanced biotechnology and other technologies that address fundamental questions of "personhood" too often make the rhetorical assumption that the question of whether ANY person should be able to explore and employ that technology is really the question of whether ALL should be FORCED to use that technology.

This rhetorical tactic, employed by Jeremy Rifkin, the mainstream "bioethics" community and the greens generally, creates an atmosphere of fear about the future and is based on a fundamentally negative view of people's ability to make choices for themselves. It is usually accompanied by a litany of techno-disasters from history, from Easter-Island to the pollution of Victorian England. But it is an essentially anti-democratic view, premised on the assumption that some environmental elite knows best what's good for the world and that people can't be trusted to do what's good or right.

> All of the stuff discussed on this list will either implode on it's own, or
> continue to strengthen. Either way, I still question why "progress" is
> heading in the direction that it is. That is, a cashless society with
> genetically-superior microchiped psi-borg clones who pick GM food from
> GM heads and feed it to glowing monkeys that have human genes.

I know that this comment was intended to be humorous, but I ask why "progress" should be seen to be moving in any ONE direction. Wouldn't the best thing be to take a lesson from nature and open up the future to maximum diversity? Just as healthy ecosystems have lots of different organisms and systems of interacting organisms, all pursuing different paths of growth and development, shouldn't a healthy approach to the future be one in which we minimize the constraints on innovation and minimize the tyranny that any one way of living can impose on others? No one should HAVE TO adopt any particular technology, but shouldn't we all be as free as possible to pursue what we each see as our own best interest?


In a message dated 99-11-23 15:34:35 EST, (Joseph Jungbluth) wrote:

> The prospect of a future with widespread adoption of
> cybernetics, gene therapy, nanotechnolgy, and all the
> other grist for this list's mill does not fill me with
> hope for the future of our race. And don't get me
> started on clone technology. The basis for my lack of
> confidence is two-fold:
> 1. Human nature is not changed by technology. The
> ability to do evil is enhanced with new technology

Surely this isn't true of all "new technology". "Technology" includes things like writing and pigments used in painting. These were once new, and yet the ability to create visual art and to record our experiences and share them

with writing have certainly been good things, on balance.  Of course 
technology enhances our "ability to do evil", but it also just as surely 
enhances our ability to do good.  Technology, per se, isn't a question of 
good or evil.

As for changing human nature, well, at a realistic level of abstraction, tools like law and democratic governance are actually a form of "technology". Such tools do not change human nature, it's true, but they do allow us to govern ourselves so that we do more good than harm in our lives in society. Beyond this, perhaps changing those parts of human nature that we aren't so fond of, such as aggressive xenophobia, might be a good thing, if we could do it.

> and
> the apathetic approach to life of the majority of us
> is encouraged through the increase in leisure time our
> inventions grant us.

Perhaps this was said when agriculture granted sufficient leisure time for people to devote more of their energies to the arts. I can imagine traditionalists condemning such frivolity as painting or sculpture or poetry or spending time wondering about how the world works outside the bounds of the tribe's age-old myths.

> TV has not given us a boom in
> literacy, information, or reasoning; rather it has
> created a large segment of at least the American
> population who are barely sentient, mobile sacks of
> water.

I don't disagree that TV as we have known it has been a "pacifying" technology that discouraged individual thought and initiative. I am no fan of American "TV Culture" - it is indeed a "great wasteland.". But consider that the cultural phenomenon of TV as we have known it was based on one-way broadcast of only a few channels of "information" that required such a large capital investment and infrastructure that it was dominated by a few very large and homogenous commercial interests.

The Internet is creating a whole new cultural milieu of "many-to-many" communication, the results of which we haven't even begun to see yet. As McLuhan pointed out long ago, each medium has its own cultural logic and "message". The civilization we are likely to create with ubiquitous, broadband digital communication will certainly be very different from the one that briefly flourished during the short time that narrow, broadcast television reigned supreme. Consider that great portions of the human race will never even experience that cultural period: They will go straight from essentially premodern communication media to a world of ubiquitous telecommunications.

I also think it is a mistake to idealize earlier eras of culture. During all of previous human history and for the overwhelming majority of human beings who have ever lived, "culture" consisted of an extremely narrow "unicultural" oral tradition. Most human beings have never known any reality outside of their village or tribe or any culture other than the one passed on to them from their parents. I doubt seriously whether you would favorably compare the mentality of, say a European peasant from mediaeval times or a Neolithic hunter-gatherer to the way you have described a modern American "couch potato".

> Computer implants will very likely reduce the
> level of sentience and certainly eliminate the
> mobility. Truly immersive VR means never having to go
> to the bathroom.

I agree that powerful VR will have significant cultural impact - much of it perhaps negative in many ways for many people. On the other hand, VR and even more advanced media will also allow us to create new art forms we can barely even imagine now and will enable us to live incredibly rich mental lives. I long to walk through the streets of ancient Rome and soar through the skies of Mars. VR will make this possible.

> 2. We aren't as smart or as capable as we think we
> are. Anyone who has worked with embedded real-time
> computer programming knows the dangers of unintended
> consequences. What makes us think we'll be able to
> beneficially manipulate our genetic code when we can't
> write 1,000 lines of HOL code without errors.

That there will be mistakes doesn't mean we shouldn't try, does it? When the first arched masonry bridge collapsed, did the Romans throw up their hands and say "That's it, no more arched masonry bridges for us!" When an early campfire got out of control and burned a Neolithic campsite, did our ancestors decide that fire was just too dangerous to use? Rocket engines are tricky things and sometimes they fail with horrible results, but we've been to the moon and, unless we lose our nerve, we'll never be confined to this planet again.

It's true that we're just learning about how the genomes of complex organisms give rise to the wonders of life. But we're also making immense strides in bioinformatics on the one hand and the science of understanding and designing complex information structures in many media on the other. Just as one example, I know of research that's being done in the creation of simple artificial chromosomes that promise to bring cures for diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. This technology looks to be deployable within five years. Should we turn away from the prospect of defeating such scourges because some other genetic modifications might have unintended consequences? To me, that's like saying that because there are occasional accidents in the system that controls traffic on London's rail system we shouldn't try to put computer-controlled air-bag systems into cars.

> The article ISML recently had on radioactivity eating
> bacteria is a great example of a situation frought
> with danger. It is really neato that we have these
> bugs that will eat toxic waste, but what will we do if
> it gets loose in the wild? Something that likes
> polymer strands might find a taste for cross-linked
> polymers. Fred Hoyle wrote a novel about just such a
> beast 25 years or so ago that I thought was
> ridiculous. I was wrong.

The petrochemical industry has been employing genetically modified bacteria to assist in cleaning up oil spills for over a decade. "Jurassic Park" notwithstanding, it IS possible to create beneficial genetically modified organisms that do useful work "in the wild". Every time you drink a beer, you're enjoying the fruits of biotechnology. The "wild" ecosystem of yeasts has been impacted by brewers work in selective breeding of beneficial organisms for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Just because the picture of a mutant gene-machine makes for a thrilling science fiction plot device doesn't mean that the technology can't be employed responsibly to achieve good results.

< snip >

> Gene therapy, cybernetics, and nanotech technologies
> are based upon the arrogant premise that we understand
> how everything works.

I don't think this is correct - these sciences and technologies are not based on the "premise that we understand how everything works" by any means. Our knowledge of the world has incrementally increased over the millennia and will continue to improve. It's true that our knowledge HAS crossed some important thresholds in the current era, as it has in the past. And, as has happened when thresholds have been crossed before, we can expect fundamental social change to come in the wake of the increased power of our tools. The development of the printing press brought such a quantum leap in the relatively recent past, as did the harnessing of mechanical and chemical power not long afterward. Before that, the development of settled agriculture brought equally basic changes. But non-human nature also undergoes great and fundamental changes. We and the biological world we now know are the result of such phase-shifts in nature: The Cambrian explosion, the Cretaceous-Tertiary impact. More local changes have had profound impacts on nature: The entire Pacific Northwest of North America was completely resculpted in relatively recent geologic time in just a few days when a massive ice-dam broke and an inland sea rushed out through the Columbia river basin.

Such great changes are part of nature and life. I don't doubt that we are living in a time of great change. But life is change.

< snip >

> I have spent most of my life as pro-science and a
> technophile, yet I can't help feeling as if we might
> not need Larry Niven's ARM to save us from ourselves.

The thought of the ARM has always chilled me to the bone (pun intended). And remember the ultimate moral of the larger story in Niven's universe: Humanity was seriously threatened when it first encountered a competing species in his "future history", because the cultural habit of innovation had been dulled by the ARM's suppression of new technologies.

> I don't object to the research being performed. I
> simply wish that some of the research were examined
> with an eye towards why something should not be done
> or what the extrapolation yields if it is.

That's what we - and millions of other people - are doing, in a global discussion of the impact that innovation will have on our lives. The culture of science is inherently open, for reasons that are well understood: Innovation can only flourish in an environment of open discussion and criticism. The problem, as I see it, is that too many people see technological innovation as "everyone or no one". As I stated in another post earlier today, isn't the healthiest approach to allow innovation and individual experimentation; to create an environment where maximal diversity is encouraged? People should be free to embrace or reject new technologies as they see fit.

> Physics
> learned humility with the unleashing of the atom.
> Medical and bio-science have not yet begun to think
> about humility. I pray that we survive their lesson.

The doctors and biotech researchers I know have a deep respect for the complexity of living systems and a deeply ethical and cautious approach to work that impacts the quality of human life. Despite the Hollywood caricature of the "mad scientist", I don't know of a single proposal for real biomedical research that isn't premised on cautious, incremental development with a constant eye to the ethical implications of research.

      Greg Burch     <>----<>
      Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know 
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another    
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                             -- Desmond Morris