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Not a transhumanist

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Sep. 18th, 2008 | 03:56 pm
mood: crazycrazy

It probably strikes people as odd that I am a computer engineer without much faith in technology as a force for Good. It certainly seems weird to me. A bit over a decade ago, when frustration at the way the world works was first bubbling over in me, I still saw technology as a hope, at least for things like pollution and disease and the like. But my thoughts in the past 5 years have led me to visit the thoughts of the critics of civilization and technology, at least that more advanced than clothes and shelter.

Recently I have come to know several people who proclaim themselves as futurists or transhumanists, believing that the rapid acceleration of, amongst other things, information and medical technology will overcome a large cross-section of the problems of humanity. Certainly, there are technological trends that appear to following an exponential curve, leading to, at some point in the nearish future, a so-called "singularity" in which technological progress will become so accelerated that humanity will be utterly transformed.

One of these futurists has a professor who declared that no technological advancements in the last 20-30 years have significantly changed human lives, at least in the NorthWest (I will confine my discussion to that area, given that I have little direct experience with the other 3/4 of the globe. I also doubt that many outside of the NorthWest will ever read this, unfortunately.). This sounds like a pretty radical proposal, given that we have computers and cell phones and MP3 players and a host of other machines and gadgets that our parents never grew up with.

It didn't take me long to agree with his thesis. In fact, it makes quite a lot of sense if you also believe in the related idea that there have been no significant scientific breakthroughs since the 50s. The 20th century saw the discoveries of relativity, quantum mechanics, and DNA, all of which revolutionized scientific thought. However science hasn't had a big find since then, 60 years later, and there are really only two possible explanations: either we've identified "the big problems" and are working on filling in the gaps, or there are some surprises coming along.

It's not that technology hasn't progressed or been refined; rather, the trends started over the last few hundred years have been extended naturally. However most of these developments haven't had a profound effect on people's lives, certainly not as profound as the original development. Undoubtedly there are cases in which modern technology has transformed people's lives. Medical discoveries to formerly uncurable or untreatable diseases (though how many have their been, compared to the discovered of vaccines a century ago?) means that small portions of our populace can live longer and better lives. Heck even telecommuting has improved lives by avoiding the notoriously aggravating process of the daily commute. But to be really revolutionary, technology has to affect the lives of the majority. Let's go through a couple cases of recent developments and see if they have significantly benefitted the populace.

When I was young, there wasn't really such as thing as a cell phone. There were expensive, large wireless phones, but they lacked the defining characteristic of contemporary cell phones: portability. Now nearly everyone has one. Has this not significantly changed our lives?

No, I daresay it hasn't. Sure, we talk on the phone more—but kids when I was young spent hours on the phone just the same. They just do it out of the home now. True, having a cell phone can be a godsend when disaster strikes, but how many people do you know whose cell phone has saved their lives or limbs? Not many, I'm betting. So really the cell phone is an extension of the original invention of the phone 100 years ago—that undoubtedly changed lives, being truly revolutionary technology that affected both the home and the workplace, but there's nothing revolutionary in disconnecting the phone from the wall and carrying it around with you.

Another item that leaps to mind is the Internet. Acknowledging that its roots lie about 30 years ago, there's no question that the Internet we know today really got off the ground in the 90s, so that makes it a recent-enough invention. So what has it given to the average citizen? Communication and knowledge tend to be the answers we hear, but how has that changed our lives? We can now talk to people farther away for cheaper (at least, by text if not by the still nascent VOIP), and even people across the planet, for essentially free (or at least for a flat rate). But what about our daily life changes because of this? More communication, but, let's be honest, most of that communication is fairly vapid, if fun, and again it seems like just a further extension of the telephone. More knowledge? Definitely. It's arguable if the knowledge stores on the Internet constitute a revolution in themselves or if it is an extension of the invention of the printing press. Regardless, so far, this increased access to information has done precious little to remedy the woes of the world. If anything, it's downright embarrassing that we have so much information available yet continue to suffer needlessly.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier; in utilitarian terms, all the new developments are supposed to bring us increased utility. The standard workweek is still 40 hours—a victory won over a hundred years ago. (And let's not forget the legislation proposed in Ontario a few years ago to "optionally" increase the workweek to 60 hours.) All our technology seems to be doing is giving us new ways to distract ourselves in our free time—on the phone, watching high-def TV, surfing through blogs and YouTube videos—without actually increasing our free time. All this technology should theoretically be increasing our productivity through corresponding gains in efficiency; to put it another way, we should be doing less work to secure more, or at least as many, resources. However we still fight for employment, when we should be fighting for better resource distribution. For the purposes of this argument I don't even mean completely equitable distribution—but surely some of the gains in efficiency should have translated into a consensus, or at least a majority, or even a sizable minority, that there's less work that needs to be done, and not into demands for more work to be created so we can earn the resources that are already there.

(To head off a possible critique, yes, the option exists for some people to work fewer hours and still live a decent life. However in most companies part-time work is rare and low-end, with low per-hour pay and rarely any benefits. Truly flexible hours, like the kind contractors and consultants have, are usually reserved for people with fairly specific, uncommon expertise.)

So, as usual, the problems appear to be social, and not technological. Progress of social welfare appears to have levelled off, at best, or more realistically decreased—the average wage of Canadians has gone down since the 1970s, inflation included, but the cost of living has only increased—so what are we doing with this technology? Using it to create more work, I guess, and therefore more drain on our resources.

To end this on a slightly positive note, as least we appear now to have the technological means to honestly start increasing our standards of living, assuming we correct the social factors that are preventing this from happening. As Murray Bookchin wrote 40 years ago, "This technological revolution . . . has created the objective, quantitative basis for a world without class rule, exploitation, toil, or material want." Or as a friend of mine said, "where are my flying cars?" except I would forget the flying car and just settle for more time to dream of them. It's too bad, but hardly surprising to me, that technological problems appear to be easier to solve than social ones...

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