TCS Daily

I Dream of Techno-Genie

By Kenneth Silber - January 23, 2004 12:00 AM

As watchers of ancient sitcoms know, a genie can bring you immense power but is also hard to control, and the granting of your wishes is not necessarily a good thing. As such, a genie can serve as a metaphor for technology, with a subtly negative connotation. And that explains the title of an interesting but quite arguable new book Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery (Island Press, $27).

This collection of essays covers a variety of topics involving science and technology, and includes some diversity of viewpoints. But the emphasis is on risks and problems, on reasons for caution and regulation. Editors Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz and Christina Desser write in the introduction of a "widening gap" between the physical world and "the experience of being human." "Left in the wake of the headlong advance of science and technology," they contend, "is an indivisible, elemental core of humanness."

Such dichotomies, however, should be treated with suspicion. Surely, any "elemental core of humanness" includes such inclinations as to learn, understand, create, build, tinker, and try to improve oneself and the world. Sitting in front of a campfire may have many merits, but it is not necessarily more "human" than sitting in front of a computer.

In an essay titled "Small is Powerful," Sarewitz and political scientist Edward Woodhouse call for "tight government regulation" that would slow nanotechnology research for better assessment of its risks. In "Changing Conceptions," law professor Lori B. Andrews calls for an "alternative to the market model" in controlling genetic and reproductive technologies.

But these authors should worry about the pitfalls of government action as well as those of technologies and markets. Regulatory bodies can be insular, self-serving, driven by short-term political pressures or, for that matter, used as tools by the industries they regulate. And slowing or stopping a technology's development could mean hurting or killing the people the technology would benefit.

However, Sarewitz and Woodhouse make some apt points, as when they criticize the technophile computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, who also has an essay in this volume. They note that he and other technology proponents argue both that technological progress is inexorable and that it gives people more choices than ever -- a contradiction. I suspect that Kurzweil's vision of rapidly increasing artificial intelligence has done as much as any technophobe jeremiad to spark public fear of technology.

Kurzweil's essay "Promise and Peril" makes the important point, though, that refraining from developing advanced technologies can increase rather than decrease risks; if respectable scientists forswear nanotechnology, then who would have the expertise to counter terrorists working in that field? Kurzweil calls, reasonably, for "fine-grained relinquishment," whereby experts refrain from specific, problematic lines of research.

Powerful technologies can have unexpected good effects as well as bad ones. In the essay "Technology and Death," author Richard Rhodes notes that a persistent upward trend in human-caused (mostly war-related) deaths collapsed after World War II; the most likely reason, he writes, was the advent of nuclear weapons, which made large-scale wars among major powers prohibitively dangerous.

In "Confined to Your Legs," biochemist and ethicist Gregor Wolbring, who was born legless as a result of the disastrous prescription drug Thalidomide, is harshly critical of the practice and prospect of eliminating disabilities through technology. Seeking to prevent, say, deafness or Down syndrome is no different, in his view, than trying to "cure" homosexuality or using abortion to select male babies; they are all efforts to eliminate categories of people. No doubt, there are difficult choices here. However, if Wolbring's view prevails, I suspect his anger will be matched in the next generation, among people who learn that their severe afflictions could have been prevented.

Shiv Visvanathan, an anthropologist in India, castigates the "moral infantilism" of science in his essay "Progress and Violence." He muses about having a "truth commission" to probe the harms done by science and technology, and lists types of "systemic violence" including genocide, extinctions, planned obsolescence, agricultural monoculture, displacement of people through development, and "museumization" of tribal groups. This list is incoherent. Moreover, blaming genocide on science overlooks such examples as Rwanda, where genocide was conducted with machetes and rocks.

Visvanathan sees the scientific mentality as contributing to Nazism, as reflected in the detachment of the people running the death camps. This is, at best, a serious oversimplification. Nazism involved not just bureaucracy and lethal technology, but also a mysticism of blood and soil, and an active contempt for inquiry and truthfulness. That the United States, rather than Nazi Germany, developed the atomic bomb owes greatly to the exile of top scientists and to the Nazi government's suspicion of "Jewish physics."

In "The Origin of the Genie," anthropologists Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth present an interesting overview of prehistoric technology. "Your Breath is Your Worst Enemy," by architect D. Michelle Addington, looks at the history of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems in buildings; this technology, it turns out, was spurred by some incorrect public-health ideas (such as, diseases are caused by bad air from swamps). Philosopher Philip Kitcher contributes an essay on "What Kinds of Science Should Be Done?" He provides not an answer but a sketched-out process for arriving at an answer.

Software entrepreneur Mitchell Kapor writes about intellectual property rights, arguing that the entertainment industry should be less resistant to the likes of Napster. Swedish geographer Carl-Gustaf Thornström, whose software business failed due to weak intellectual property protection, argues for caution in assigning property rights to biological materials and processes. Novelist Richard Powers provides an essay entitled "Literary Devices," which I found to be, ironically, unreadable. In "Blowback in Genetic Engineering," journalist Mark Schapiro laments the rise of genetically modified foods in the U.S. He emphasizes that such foods have encountered resistance in other countries, but offers scant evidence that the products are harmful or the resistance well-considered.

The final two essays, both by editors of the book, press concerns that technology is damaging the quality of life. In "Only Connect," Desser complains about the artificiality of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas; this is similar to visiting Antarctica and whining that it's cold. In "The World is Too Much with Me," Lightman (who is a physicist and novelist, and author of the excellent novel Einstein's Dreams) worries that personal technologies make life too frenzied, crowding out contemplation and relaxation. He suggests, quite sensibly, that such a problem can be solved on an individual basis.


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