December 28, 2003

My kind of conservative thought!

Bill McKibben's recent book Enough is sounding an alarm. Its thesis is that the new and converging technologies of germline engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology will destroy what little meaning is left in our lives.

If, as McKibben expects, these technologies succeed in extending our lifespan, increasing our intelligence, improving our emotional makeup, and solving the problems of material scarcity--in other words, if the techno-visionaries' dreams come true, we'll all be profoundly worse off for it.

From Enough, by Bill McKibben:

It has perhaps crossed even your dull old-fashioned human mind that there is something of an irony at work here. Even as the genetic engineers work busily to upgrade us, adding IQ and memory, the robotics engineers are hard at work making sure we'll be surpassed, and the nanotechnologists to make sure all our wants will be satisfied by pushing buttons. What, on other words, are we being enhanced for?

* * *

Look--I don't know for sure what this world would feel like. What it would mean if we were "seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" or if "the realm of the born and the realm of the made. . .become one." I can imagine what a cat feels like stretching in the late afternoon sun, but I can't quite channel what it would be like to inhabit "a warm, energized, super-sensual morphing device of graceful complexity and beauty." It's a thought experiment almost beyond our powers. . . Having focused on our own kind to the exclusion of others, we're urged on to a kind of species suicide. Instead of backing down a little, leaving room for the rest of nature, we're firing up the pyre for man as well.

* * *

We need to do an unlikely thing: we need to survey the world we now inhabit and proclaim it good. Good enough. Not in every detail; there are a thousand improvement, technological and cultural, that we can and should still make. But good enough in its outlines, in its esssentials. We need to decide that we live, most of us in the West, long enough. We need to declare that, in the West, where few of us work ourselves to the bone, we have ease enough. In societies where most of us need storage lockers more than we need nanotech miracle boxes, we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough.

I think McKibben has it right. Although the stakes may be higher because the consequences are more profound, the current crop of what McKibben calls "technoprophets" are nothing new. They're simply the most recent version of people who've had a pseudo-religious conversion. Although most of them would vehemently deny that they were anything other than strictly secular, these people share a religious faith in the power of technology to solve all of our problems.

Rather than confront the problems generated by our behavior and its consequences, these technoprophets seek to transcend the difficult question of "how should I live?" with technological solutions that make it all a moot point.

Confronted with a consumer society that ignores long-term consequences for short-term pleasures, the technoprophets mean to conjure the problem away with nanoassemblers which, they promise, will eliminate the dilemma. We'll be able to consume as much as we want with no waste. Voila, problem solved.

Confronted with the problems of uncertainty about our children's futures, and the difficult parenting choices that this entails, the technoprophets propose to give parents the ability to select genetic upgrades for their kids, ensuring that they'll be smart, athletic, and happy. Voila, problem solved.

McKibben reminds us of the story of King Midas, whose wish that everything he touched would turn to gold was granted. The poor bastard suffered. And so will we, McKibben argues, when germline engineering gives a kid the ability to run fast but causes him to question whether it's really him that's doing the running, or some company's running-gene that his parents picked out of the catalog.

This faith in the magic of technology is analogous to the faith in the magic of the free market. Both of these pseudo-religious cults are so attractive because they relieve us of the burdens of facing the consequences of our actions. Just as technology conjures away tough choices, the belief in the free market as a failsafe mechanism for allocating goods relieves us of confronting the distribution of wealth in our society and asking the tough question: is this just? The free-marketeer can replace this tough question with an easy one: is this a result of market mechanisms? The moral weight of the question drains away in one easy step, leaving the free-marketeer carefree, light-hearted, and untroubled.

Needless to say, neither of these abnegations succeed. And thankfully, there are people like Bill McKibben around who will call our attention to these easy cop-outs and remind us that merely feeling good about our choices isn't enough.

Posted by Carey at December 28, 2003 10:15 PM

Man is a fallen creature, this is an indisputable truth. Whether he arrived at his fallen state through original sin, or through the vagaries of evolution is debatable, but the conclusion must be the same. It is interesting how someone like McKibben who is not at all associated with "conservatism" is expressing such fundamentally conservative views. The excerpts you quoted are very much in the tradition of Richard Weaver, Russel Kirk, and Donald Davidson. It is also interesting that the rise of neoconservatism has purged any sense of human limitation from the party line.

Posted by: Nick at December 29, 2003 02:01 PM

Sorry, Nick. That bit about "man being a fallen creature" is total hogwash. We're easily misled, and sometimes we're overly gullible, but we're not fallen. We're a bit over-enamored of technical solutions because we're just trying them out. We haven't had time to find balance. But just because we're teetering on the edge of a precipice doesn't mean we've fallen. Just that we've climbed high enough that we have yet to adjust to the rarified air.

We're out of kilter, is all.

Posted by: Heidi at December 29, 2003 07:01 PM

My problem with this is that it's exactly the same kind of argument that alarmists have been making for hundreds of years. I see no evidence that genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or anything else will inherently make us less human. Yes, new technologies make the world more complex. But they don't make us less human, they expand what it means to be human.

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 4, 2004 09:12 PM

Carey, while the psycho-spriitual concerns that you and McKibbon (and I, as well) have are valid, they pale in comparison to the social and environmental concerns that people have. Take genetic engineering of humans for instance. How many people actually believe that no more babies will be born the "old-fashioned way." Even vasectomies aren't 100%, and not everyone is going to get one anyway. Required viewing should be the movie GATTACA. Although it's sci-fi, the concerns expressed in the movie will become very real if this technology is ever perfected. Add the wrinkle that this technology will be available more to the super rich than to anyone else, and you see the continued divergence between rich and poor.
genetic engineering of crops could have a lot of promise to feed most of the world's hungry. But the environmental effects are unknown, and so potentially devastating. maybe it would be better to encourage people to eat lower on the food chain, so that this planet can feed more people the natural way.
nanotech is perhaps the scariest of the new technologies. While it could be used to cure disease and clean up the environment. An accident involving those tiny self-replicating robots could spell the end of the planet (the grey-goo problem has been considered by serious scientists), and let's not forget the possibility of the use of this technology by terrorists.
I'm all for scientific advance. i think our President has his head where the sun doesn't shine on stem cell research. But in disagreement with Mark Ashton, I think there is a line that we may already have crossed. we need to do some serious cost-benefit analysis.

Posted by: Larry at January 8, 2004 12:58 PM

McKibben's point is that some of these new technologies will so profoundly change the way human beings live, and the way human beings experience their lives, that we ought to slow down and consider for a while whether they are worth it.

Mark, I think McKibben's approach to technology seems to me to be a much more rational approach than the one taken by the technoprophets, who irrationally claim that everything new is always an improvement. McKibben's description of the possible consequences of germline engineering, for example, makes a strong case that this technology does not merely expand what it means to be human, but instead fundamentally alters it, in a way that risks draining the experience of life of much that we value in it.

Thus, I'm convinced that "the alarmists" are taking a much more rational approach than the technoprophets are.

I think it's interesting that the opposition to the technoprophets' irrationality cannot be conveniently appropriated wholly by the left or by the right. Kirk, Davidson, and Weaver, along with people like Wendell Berry, Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, and (were they alive) Edward Abbey and JRR Tolkien, all counsel together against the technoprophets' delusional lack of wisdom.

Larry, I think your point is a good one, and I agree with you. The strength of McKibben's argument is that he chooses to assume that everything will turn out exactly as the technoprophets predict, with none of the realistic and very scary consequences of something going wrong. Even after ceding all that very contestible ground to the technoprophets, he still makes what in my opinion is a convincing argument against doing what the technoprophets urge us to do. It's game, set, and match to McKibben.

Posted by: Carey at January 8, 2004 09:35 PM