TCS Daily

Who Needs It?

By Yuval Levin - September 19, 2002 12:00 AM

"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

So said Henry David Thoreau in Walden in 1854. As usual, the clever and witty Thoreau completely missed the point of what was going on around him. He saw no need for Maine and Texas to communicate. But as the march of modern technology has taught us, the ability to communicate would soon enough create the need. The idea that necessity is the mother of invention - that Maine and Texas would have to have something important to say to each other before someone would link them with a telegraph line - has not at all been the governing logic of the modern age of invention.

Modern technology creates needs at least as often as it serves them. All those sorry saps who happened to live before 1879 did not spend much time saying "If only we had electric lighting." But who among us now could live without it? No one could have imagined a real need for a radio or television before they were invented, but few of us could really give them up today. Maine would have serious trouble going on with life as normal if the information network that connects it to Texas was suddenly taken away. Invention is oftentimes the mother of necessity.

Of course, this is not always so. Corrective lenses serve a real need that existed and was felt long before such lenses ever existed. Though we could live without them, shoes and blades and boats serve very clear needs, as do many other inventions and technologies. But the most prominent inventions of our own time have generally created the needs that they then satisfied.

A few examples are obvious. Think of the need for a computer, and the social phenomena that in the 1990s came to be called the "digital divide." Just a few decades ago, no one really could have felt a need for what we now know as the personal computer. But once they had passed some threshold of acceptance, computers (and later the Internet) became essential for school and for business. Individuals and communities who did not have access to them were genuinely disadvantaged (though the problem, its causes and its remedies, were surely grossly misrepresented and misunderstood.) As powerful new tools are created, they quickly become necessary, and those who do not have them, or do not know how to use them, are held back in the race for success through no failure or action of their own. The very creation of a new technology thereby creates a new need, and a new inequality.

There are countless smaller and more trivial examples too. How many of us, at some point in the past few years, have felt a sudden desperate need to have a cell-phone, and wondered how exactly we (not to speak of countless generations before us) ever actually did without one? The gadget, at first a fun novelty, soon becomes a real necessity, and doing without it can be genuinely difficult.

This phenomenon is not altogether new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood the psychology behind it long ago. In his 1754 Discourse on the Origins of Inequality he says of human creations and inventions that "in time these commodities lost all their pleasantness through habit, and as they had at the same time degenerated into true needs, being deprived of them became much more cruel than possessing them was sweet; and people were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them." Far from leaving us satisfied, technological advances can often leave us feeling greater pangs of need than ever.

This invention of needs is not always quite that bad, however. New needs can push us to improve our quality of life, and to spread the benefits of progress throughout our society. They have certainly been good for our economy as well.

But when we turn our attention from the realm of information technology to consider biotechnology, this phenomenon of inventing necessities might just give us cause for more serious concern.

To this point, biotech has mostly followed the more familiar model of need pointing toward invention. Most work in the field has always aimed at the relief of suffering-the most pressing of our human needs, and the one whose service is often the most needful and most satisfying. People suffering great pain or facing death need medical help, and the science of biomedical technology works tirelessly to meet that need. While there are surely moral questions surrounding some of that work, there is a general agreement that the goal is noble and necessary.

But as it comes ever more to resemble the rest of our modern technology, as it becomes more than a science of amelioration and allows us to do more and more things that we never before really felt a need to do, biotech begins to raise more troubling questions. The new abilities it seems likely to give us-to engineer our descendents, to manipulate our natural traits, to chemically alter our mood with precision, etc.-will soon enough create their own uses, and give rise to new needs and necessities.

These will not simply be needs for new gadgets. They will be needs for alterations to our human selves.

This may have two prominent consequences in particular. First, the invention of powerful needs for biological enhancements could affect our understanding of ourselves. Our sense of our own bodily needs is awfully important. It plays a central role in shaping our attitudes about our bodies and our minds, our abilities and our limits, our priorities, and our approach to the world. Creating new needs and new wants in the realm of human biology is therefore no small matter. The human being whose most powerful needs are so shaped by biotechnologies that he cannot quite imagine how people lived before genetic engineering and Prozac will likely have a sense of himself rather different from what we have so far understood as fully human. His relation to his desires and his body and mind could well be largely unfamiliar to us. Perhaps he will be better. But he won't be one of us.

Second, and more concretely, the social dynamics of needs and abilities will mean that this transformation will not be limited to a few or defined by private choices. Most precedents suggest that the invention of new needs for biotechnical enhancement will get the government involved in this most private realm of life. The libertarian dream of individuals making fully independent choices about engineering their children and reshaping themselves does not seem likely in our liberal democracy. The example of the digital divide is instructive here. The needs created by powerful new technologies are many times felt first and foremost as inequalities that must be remedied, and no wrong is more painfully felt in a democracy than inequality.

All too often in contemporary America we look to the government for the remedy to such inequalities. It did not take long once we discovered the digital divide before politicians of both left and right were promising a computer in every classroom. And the biotech revolution promises far greater powers than computer literacy. Will we allow only the rich to give their children long lives, broad shoulders and high IQ scores? Or will today's advances be tomorrow's entitlements? New abilities will create new needs, which will create new clamoring for policy. To which bureau of the department of Health and Human Services shall we assign the task of enhancing our kids' genes?

These are, of course, just speculations. Predicting the future, and especially the future of technology, is more or less pure folly. No one can know just what the age of biotech will bring. But this does not mean that we should give up any effort to foresee, or that past trends-like the invention of new needs by new technologies-have no bearing on the future.

Nothing could be more important to any society than the character of its descendents, and biotech could shape that character in very direct and lasting ways, some of which we may not like. This does not mean that we should freeze biotech in its tracks. Of course we shouldn't. But this and many other sorts of considerations do mean that each and every one of us has a real stake in the way that biotechnology develops and the sorts of directions it takes. It means that we should try to look ahead, to see the promise and the peril, and to act when action seems essential.

Yuval Levin is a member of the staff of the President's Council on Bioethics and the author of Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook. All views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the President's Council on Bioethics or its members.

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