THREE COMMANDMENTS FOR TECHNOLOGY OPTIMIST
THE IMPACTS OF new technologies are unpredictable: Inventors hyperbolic a revolutionary technology when it emerges, but it’s impossible for society to anticipate its long-term effects. Because new technologies are so powerful and incomprehensible, responsible technologists must practice what the poet John Keats called negative capability: “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact,” simultaneously cultivating caution and enthusiasm.I’ve been thinking about technology enthusiasm as long as WIRED has been published.
Long an editor of competing magazines, I now help build life sciences companies, mostly in health and agriculture. Witness and participant, I’ve become (to my slight surprise) a person of a fixed, familiar ideology, one of those blithe bastards who think technology can solve big problems, grow wealth, and enlarge human possibilities. All I lack is the fleece vest.I’m not an absolute fool about technology: a determinism or militant naif. I know that most technologies are contingent, neither necessary nor impossible, and that user makes a particular technology good or bad, according to circumstance and effect.
I don’t forget Clay Shirks rueful dictum that “it’s not a revolution if nobody loses,” and I concede that the losers in any technologically wrought social transformation are often those with the least to lose. But I believe that any broadly adopted technology satisfies some profound human need. We are technology-making apes who evolve through our material culture; everywhere, people fly like birds, speed like cheetahs, and live as long as lobsters, but only because of our technologies. I’m confident that smart, generous policies can ameliorate technological unemployment and other displacements.More religiously, while I recognize that technological solutions create new problems, I have faith those problems will find yet more solutions, in an ascending spiral of frustration and release—the greatest show on Earth that will never end, until we do.
SCIENCE, UNLIKE TECHNOLOGY, is an absolute good, and learning about the world is a kind of categorical imperative: an unconditional moral obligation that is its own justification. Those who expand human thought are especially heroic because they replace obscurity with the truth, which however so shocking is always salutary. But science is only directly useful insofar as it leads to new technologies.
In my new life, I often ask myself: With the time I have left, what novel technologies should I pursue? Which should I reject? Not long ago, the partners at my firm considered a technology that might prevent disease. But we chose to let someone else commercialize it because its expansive powers and potential liability confounded us. Was our choice admirable or cowardly?
If technology is functional and its value instrumental, then it follows that not all singular applications of technological domains are equal. Nuclear fission can power a plant or detonate a bomb. The Haber-Bosch process, which converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia by a reaction with hydrogen, was used to manufacture munitions in Germany during World War I, but half the world’s population now depends on food grown with nitrogen fertilizers. (Fritz Haber, who was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for co-inventing the process, was a conflicted technologist—the father of chemical warfare in World War I. His wife, also a chemist, killed herself in protest, in 1915.) What’s more, designs possess a moral direction, even if technologies can be put to different uses. You can hammer a nail with a pistol butt, although that’s not what it’s for; a spade can kill a man, but it’s better for digging. Therefore, the first commandment for technologists is Design technologies to swell happiness. A corollary: Do not create technologies that might increase suffering and oppression, unless you’re very sure the technology will be properly regulated.
However, the regulation of new technologies presents a special problem. The future is unknowable, and any really revolutionary technology transforms what it means to be human and may threaten our survival or the survival of the species with whom we share the planet. Haber’s fertilizers fed the world’s people, but also fed algae in the sea: Fertilizer runoffs have created algae blooms, which poison fish. The problem of unpredictable effects is especially acute with some energy and all geoengineering technologies; with biotechnologies such as gene drives that can force a genetic modification through an entire population in a few generations; with artificial eggs and sperm that might allow parents to augment their offspring with heritable traits.