A remarkable paradox shapes our time: The technological progress enables us to live in unprecedented safety, enjoy the highest ever levels of health, and experience a quality of life no past generation has ever known. At the same time many people project a future in which everything we know is destroyed or even humanity as […]
A remarkable paradox shapes our time: The technological progress enables us to live in unprecedented safety, enjoy the highest ever levels of health, and experience a quality of life no past generation has ever known. At the same time many people project a future in which everything we know is destroyed or even humanity as a whole is wiped out. We are scared and at the same time live as well as never before. How does that fit together?
A quick look back reveals that this contradiction is a rather modern phenomenon. Until the 19th century, philosophers and writers of the Western world drew very positive visions of mankind’s future. It started in 1516 with the “Utopia” by Thomas More. Utopia is a world in which all people (more precisely, all men) have the same rights. The working day consists of six hours, everyone can freely choose his profession and has full access to educational facilities, and everybody gets his needs provided for by the community. Such a society must have appeared as a paradise to the people 500 years ago. Thus, for a long time utopias were fictitious future worlds that represented bright contrasts to the dreary everyday life of the present day. However, in the 20th century the picture tipped. Cracks appeared on the optimistic outlook on the future. A look into the literary visions of the last hundred years displays rather unpleasant worlds: ecocide, atomic apocalypse, murderous robots, and totalitarian regimes. Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, the figureheads of the science fiction novel of the 20th century, describe worlds of nightmares created by despotic dictatorships made possible only by modern technologies.
That is not without irony. Because the “culprit” of the expected deterioration or destruction of our living conditions is identified to be the scientific and technological progress, i.e. the very power that made it possible that today we live in a society that far exceeds the optimistic scenarios of Morus’ Utopia. The fact that it was the sciences of the 17th and 18th centuries and their heroes such as Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, who decisively contributed to the Enlightenment and thus to liberalism, democracy, and the open society, no longer counts. A blanket reproach to science is even that it subjects people to the constraints and laws of technology and economics, thus degrading them to pure objects. In other words, science rejects and destroys humanity.
How can we understand our emotional affinity to decline in an age when science and technology are reaching ever-higher heights and providing us with a better and better quality of life? How can one explain this contradiction, in which we are driven by both, a comfortable but blind belief in technology and a fear-driven curse of science and its technologies? We blindly trust the functioning of smartphones, computers, digital data communication, antibiotics and many other technologies, but at the same time demonize technological progress as a whole. For this strange balance, I see essentially five reasons:
1. Technologies force their beat and rhythm upon us. Assembly-line work, fear of losing jobs through new technologies, time-constraints created by technical and mathematical optimization processes in our jobs (“just-in-time” production and distribution) – all of this creates the feeling of losing control over our lives,
2. Most people hardly understand what is going on behind the curtains of the scientific stage. At the same time they feel that they are powerful processes at work. It is this combination of intuitive sensing and lack of concrete knowledge and understanding that creates anxiety.
3. The sheer velocity of technological change and the associated complexity and speed of social change overwhelm us mentally and emotionally. We no longer see ourselves as agents of social change, but can only react to a ridiculously fast transformations. Over the past 250 years, people have at given times faced several singular technological upheavals, technological advances have been comparatively slow. Today, we are not just dealing with a single “sorcerer’s apprentice” experience but with a whole bunch of them.
4. The consequences of technological developments are no longer locally confined. They do no longer stop at national borders or oceans. Many of the problems have a global reach: topics like nuclear war, environmental destruction, overpopulation, climate catastrophe, artificial super-intelligence and genetic engineering affect and threaten humanity as a whole! Also questions of social justice, energy supply or nutrition can be treated effectively only on a global scale. Problems in seemingly distant continents like Africa and Asia have direct effects on us in Europe and North America. We are thus directly affected by the actions of other nations and cultures.
5. We are forced to abandon the comfort zone of absolute certainties, be these of religious, philosophical or scientific nature. We are forced to endure living with the ambivalence of complementary truths. What began with Copernicus and the loss of our central position in the universe, continued with Darwin (we are not the center of creation, either, but rather the result of a process that animals and plants have gone through equally) and Freud (we are not even masters of our own mental home) found a next manifestation in quantum theory: there is no more special point of view any longer, no absolute truth to hold on to. If a particle can at the same time be a wave and if the outcome of a physical measurement depends on the “standpoint” of the observer, then it is well possibly that two opposing worldviews can coexist next to each other.
So it is the uncertainties associated with the technological change that make people withdraw to the traditional and long for the “good old days” when everything was so safe, clear and well defined. They then emphasize the dividing line between peoples and ethnic groups rather than see universal human commonalities. They seek solutions provided by an authoritarian government that has long since lost its real authority and the control over the developments. Scientists make incredible technology possible, and we find ourselves in a bubble in which we are emotionally stuck with the world of yesterday struggling to perceive and accept change, let alone see what this change means to us.
Technological revolutions have in the past repeatedly come with a redefinition of ethical, political, social, spiritual and religious norms. They shifted truths, destroyed world views and created new ones. Ambivalences were always part of the game during these processes. In addition to computers, lasers and modern medical diagnostics, quantum physics brought us the atomic bomb. The Internet comes with exciting new opportunities for social, political and economic exchange as well as completely new ways of governmental (and corporate) surveillance and massive interference with our privacy. New algorithms solve previously insoluble problems, but the development of a superior artificial intelligence threatens to enslave us. And from the hunger of our modern technologies for energy leads a direct path to the destruction of our natural resources.
But who or what is actually in a position to steer technological progress towards tolerable outcomes? Several social actors come to our minds quickly. However, two of the often mentioned among them are undoubtedly overwhelmed by the task:
• The responsiveness of societal decision-makers (politicians, business leaders, media designers, etc.) whose job it is also to increase the common good is far too slow to steer the accelerating dynamics of technological change. Among other things, this is due to the fact that our political, business and cultural leaders’ knowledge of the state of scientific development is usually scarce (it is thus possible that the future German Ministry of Research is led by a hotel clerk, who has nothing to do with science and education at all).
• The scientists themselves will be just as unable to control progress. On the contrary, like all other members of society, they are largely subject to the free-market logic. They can even become billionaires themselves by developing new technologies based on their insights.
A third social creative force is the free market. And indeed, technological progress has hitherto almost exclusively followed a market (or military) exploitation logic. In other words, what was possible and meant a financial (or military) advantage for some has indeed been developed. Can we hope that the mechanism of market competition steers the technological progress as best for us? This would mean hoping that Google, Facebook and Amazon would decide on the development and use of quantum computers and higher artificial intelligence to everybody’s benefit or that pharmaceutical and genetic engineering companies employ CRISPR so it serves all of us best.
Even the most believing followers of the free market ideology would upon honest inspection consider such an expectation as far-fetched. In fact, the market is a very bad referee when it comes to ethical concerns. And questions such as the proper use of CRISPR or the development of a possible superior artificial intelligence are about far more than just a few billion dollars in profits for a few companies. They are about nothing less than the survival of human civilization as we know it.
Rather, dealing with the impacts of future technologies requires the democratic engagement of each one of us. This includes our all duty to actively seek information and exchange views and entails at the same time a request to the media to provide comprehensive information on scientific progress. Unfortunately, there is still far too little talk about physics, chemistry, or biology when journalists and other opinion leaders inform us on world events and important social developments.
Further, next to ethical integrity we must demand a commitment to intellectual integrity from politicians and other social and economic decision-makers. This means that deliberate falsehoods, information distortion as well as information filters for the purpose of enforcing particular interests must be effectively fought against. It is unacceptable that fake news unfold their destructive propagandistic power, and a startling number of politicians are for example still seriously doubting climate change or Darwin’s theory of evolution.
However, the commandment of intellectual honesty also applies to ourselves, the recipients of information. We have to be careful not to draw conclusions too quickly, break down on prejudices, and engage in complex interrelations without the urge to oversimplify. And finally, we have to allow for inconvenient truths.
The feeling that big changes are upon us distresses many. And this blocks our thinking. A million-year-old reflex thus takes over: flight. But instead of falling into irrational impulses, invoking dull slogans of the “good old times”, constraining ourselves to particular values and cultural believes and isolating us against anything strange, we should recognize: Only in a truly global interaction, with the help of the spiritual and ethical potential of all people on this planet will we master the challenges of technological change. And with this attitude fear of it will disappear.
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