The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. ~Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations, 1988
So if you’ve stuck with me over these last few blogs, I want to say a heartfelt thank you. When I started on this topic, I suggested it was complicated, and a central point of my starting this blog continues to be my contention that we have little time for complexity and the ensuing subtlety complexity demands. That being said, my almost thirty years as a teacher, taken in conjunction with my experiences in politics, has convinced me that trends accumulating through the process I have described over the last few blogs have come to dominate important elements of modern life (education being the one of longest standing concern for me). So where are we?
As the 20th century was dawning, we were on the verge of a technological revolution that would make all previous marvels pale in comparison. My grandmother was born in 1889 and died in 1982. Compare the changes she saw in her lifetime to those of someone who lived a similar span a hundred years earlier. We’ve probably all heard some version of how advancement has accelerated as time has passed. One I recall is that, between the dawn of civilization and 1850, the sum of human knowledge doubled. Since then, that doubling has increased in speed. Check out the link I’ve included below for one version based on Buckminster Fuller’s “Knowledge Doubling Curve”. Regardless of the details, it isn’t hard to see that technology has come to dominate our lives to an ever-increasing degree.
In the meantime, the Copernican revolution, the theory of evolution, and Freud had undermined virtually every assumption regarding humanity’s status as the chosen ones. Little wonder that as the century progressed, however much it might be disguised, humanity’s latest efforts to reinforce just how special we are would ultimately find a home in the most apparent evidence of our superiority: technological advancement.
Just so you know, I love technology and all the gizmos it has given us. While I still find being tied to a cellphone unsettling at times, I would never suggest that we throw it all away and go back to some imagined idyllic past where all was well with the world or, at least, substantially better. As you may have surmised, my contention is that this existence is always problematic for human beings. Alone among the living on this planet, we are conscious of mortality and we seek meaning and purpose for our lives. Where we go to find that meaning and how we grapple with the mystery of existence is far more central to living than we probably realize. As conventional religious practice has waned in the Western world, we have looked for an alternative.
So, to put it bluntly, I believe technology has become ideological. The 20th century saw incredible advancements – at ever increasing speed – in virtually every sphere of human activity. Scientific understanding of the natural world made such progress possible and, initially, it was regarded as a fundamental good. In the midst of all of this, however, the human race saw examples of just how destructive technology could be in the hands of those who wanted to use it for destructive purposes, either deliberately or indifferently. Two world wars, the development of nuclear arms, global warming, irresponsible uses of technology in general, all have one thing in common: human beings are the ones at the controls. If we can’t put technology back in the box, what are we to do? How do we avoid self-destruction, something that we seem to be prone to given the proper circumstances?
And so we have the IDEOLOGY of technological humanity. What has technology told us, especially in the last 30 years or so? Put simply, everything that exists in the world can be made better. We have come to expect that technological innovation is without boundaries. Take the television. Just when you think you have purchased the TV for the ages, the next upgrade comes along. The same applies to cars, phones, crop yields, etc, etc, etc. As science focuses on human beings themselves, is it any wonder that a similar “technological model” of personhood should take root in our consciousness? We have arrived at a place where we imagine ourselves as organic commodities which, through rigorous application of a scientific method, can be “improved”. In this uncertain world, we have found a “belief system” (an ideology) that tells us we can control our destiny – make humanity intrinsically “better”. Needless to say, I don’t agree.