Dr. Lars Jaeger (guest author)
entrepreneur, scientist, writer, financial theorist and alternative investment manager
A remarkable paradox is shaping our time: 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. But at the same time many people depict 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. Right into the nineteenth century philosophers and writers of the Western world painted extremely positive pictures of mankind’s future. It all started in 1516 with “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 seemed like paradise to 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 twentieth century that picture changed. A look into the literary visions of the last hundred years mainly reveals unpleasant worlds: ecocide, atomic apocalypses, homicidal robots, totalitarian regimes. Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, the figureheads of the science fiction novel of the twentieth 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 scientific and technological progress, i.e. the very power that made it possible that today we live in a society that far exceeds many of the optimistic scenarios of More’s Utopia. The fact that it was the sciences of the seventeenth and eighteenth 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 general criticism that is leveled against science even goes as far as saying 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.
Five reasons why we are increasingly afraid of progress
How can we understand our emotional affinity to decline in an age in which science and technology are reaching undreamed-of and ever-greater heights and providing us with an ever 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. I see essentially five reasons for this strange balance:
- 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 being captive and losing control over our lives.
- Most people hardly understand what is going on behind the curtains of the scientific stage. At the same time they feel that there are powerful processes at work. It is this combination of intuitive sensing and lack of concrete knowledge and understanding that creates anxiety.
- The sheer velocity of technological change and the associated complexity and speed of social change overwhelm us both mentally and emotionally. Over the past 250 years, people have at given times faced several singular technological upheavals, and 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.
- The consequences of technological developments are no longer locally confined. They no longer stop at national borders or oceans. Many of the problems have a global reach: Topics such as nuclear war, environmental destruction, overpopulation, climate catastrophe, artificial super-intelligence and genetic engineering affect and threaten humanity as a whole!
- 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) and found its next manifestation in quantum theory: There is no 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 entirely possible that two opposing world views can coexist next to each other.
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. Alongside computers, lasers and modern medical diagnostics, quantum physics also 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.
Dynamism of technological progress virtually impossible to steer
But who or what is actually in a position to steer technological progress towards tolerable outcomes? Several social players spring to mind. However, two which are often mentioned are, individually, undoubtedly overwhelmed by the task:
- The responsiveness of societal decision-makers (politicians, business leaders, media designers, etc.), whose job it also is 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 current state of scientific development is usually scarce.
- The scientists themselves are equally incapable of controlling technological progress. On the contrary: Just like all other members of society, they too 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 will steer technological progress in the best possible way 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 and that pharmaceutical and genetic engineering companies employ CRISPR so it serves all of us in the best possible way. 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.
Rather the shaping of future technologies requires the democratic engagement of each and every one of us. And that includes an obligation to keep abreast of the times and exchange information, and, at the same time, entails a request to the media to provide comprehensive information on scientific progress. Unfortunately there is still too little talk about physics, chemistry and biology when journalists and other opinion leaders inform us on world events and important social developments.
Fighting information filters and neutralizing particular interests
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 unfolds its destructive propagandistic power, and that a startling number of politicians are, for example, still seriously doubting climate change and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
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