Friday, 23 November 2012

Fight the Future?

I argued on Monday that the future has already left us behind - that we will never again be conceptually and morally on top of our technology (never mind legislatively). But technology is optional - we could abandon it, turn it all off etc. If, as I suggested on Monday, it's potentially dangerous and disruptive, shouldn't we do exactly that?

Let's put aside the semantic question of what counts as 'technology' (i.e. how far should we roll our technology back, or at what point does technology become morally corrupting?), and the practical question of how many people would die if we did try this (we can't feed everyone on Earth with current technology; rolling back our tech is not going to make us more agriculturally productive).

Even with those issues out of the picture, I'm still going to argue that the answer is a resounding negative. It's not just that it would be impossible to get everyone to abandon technological society; it's that focussing on the problems of technological society leads us to overlook just how much it improves our lives.

Think of the Luddites, smashing up looms and other industrial machines which were putting them out of what had been skilled jobs. Did they gain anything by this activity? Their economic niche had closed, and all the power remained in the hands of the mill-owners, who certainly had no interest in cooperating to preserve expensive jobs or protect those they had just sacked.

(sidebar: don't take this as indicating that I'm against collective bargaining or industrial action in general. There have been some (very few) industrial actions which were simply attempts to fight the future, but in general, collective bargaining absolutely is and must be a right of employees - otherwise far too much power resides with employers).

Notice the real source of the problem? Economic niches have been opening and closing all through mankind's history, just as societies have risen and fallen. Change happens. The problem that created the Luddites was the fact that they were shafted by their employers; the mill-owners made no effort to soften the blow of progress, to make it possible for the weavers to support their families through whatever spell of unemployment that progress created. I would imagine that if newly-fired weavers were offered anything at all, it would have been along the lines of 'Well, we can re-hire you as an unskilled loom operator if you want.' Not helpful behaviour.

So, it's still a human problem. It's a problem of people who hold the upper hand being, not to put too fine a point on it, douchebags. But surely it was a technological step forward that enabled and/or encouraged this behaviour - so isn't technology still to blame?

This, as I understand it, is a key part of the Amish belief structure. Now, I have to confess a visceral feeling of revulsion for Amish culture. With the exception of truly extremist anti-progressives like the Unabomber or the Pakistani Taliban agents who shot Malala Yousafzai, I view the Amish value system as one of the most diametrically opposed to mine. Their only saving grace is pacifism - notice how every other anti-progressive action I've mentioned has involved violence?

Anyway, I'll do my best to be objective about the Amish. Their creed on modern technology seems to go something like this:
The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Modern innovations like electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity. (from Wikipedia)
I could nitpick over several things here, but there's only one I want to focus on for now; notice the use of the word 'might'. Even the author of the Wikipedia article (and without wanting to rely on guesswork, it reads as if it was written by someone with considerable sympathy for the Amish, and this is probably the way it should be) acknowledges that technology won't definitely have this effect. Maybe some Amish would dispute that, and claim that technology is always corrupting, but on that point, they are definitely, demonstrably wrong.

All it takes to refute the claim that technology is always corrupting is one example of a technology-dependent system or group which is not or has not been corrupted by technology, but I can go one better than that. I can give at least one example of a community which could not exist without technology. The most vibrant, supportive and loving community I belong to is a Facebook group of authors (you know who you are, Lounge Lizards).

If you think that makes me sad and a pathetic loner, you fail to understand the power of technology to bring people together and enable the best in us as well as the worst. And that is the key point that we need to understand, that the Amish and the Luddites and every other reactionary fail to see.

Technology exaggerates what we do - it makes us able to do more of whatever it is we're doing. If we are inhuman, callous and cruel, technology will reflect our inhumanity back on us many times over. It will distance us, excuse our selfishness, shun the weak and sink poisonous claws into the strong. But if we come to our technology, on an individual level, with compassion and moral courage, we stand to see those virtues written larger than ever before across our culture and history.

We may never again have a good handle on our technology. But if we can all take a good handle on ourselves, the possible benefits are every bit as great as the possible damage. To reject that technology, though, eliminates far more of the benefits than the costs (it's here where the question of just how many people would die if we did reject our technology comes up again). It is an act of reactionary cowardice, not communitarian spirit.

A lot of these ideas came to me as a result of another lecture I was in on education, and something similar goes for education as for technology. I leave you with this, from Haim G. Ginott:

Dear Teachers:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Haim G. Ginott

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