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Future Shock! (arrives in dribs and drabs) September 11, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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Dystopian visions of the future in films such as Blade Runner and Gattaca confront us with a future fully arrived. They instantaneously transport us to a new and frightening world for which our mundane existence leaves us unprepared. And the angst we experience at not knowing how to live in such a world heightens the dramatic appeal of the these films.

 A good deal of intellectual discussion of our technological future perform the same cheap trick. Prognosticators such as Francis Fukuyama and Michael Sandel write, in portentous tones, that advances in biotechnology or artificial intelligence will fundamentally threaten what it means to be human. They regale us with visions of parents creating designer babies in a search for perfection that undermines sympathy for the less well-endowed, a future of mutants and superbeings who obviate the need for compassion, solidarity, etc.

But these warnings miss a fundamental fact about all technological advance. It doesn’t arrive all at once. As Ray Tallis points out in this insighful essay:

 “Of course, people are worried about more invasive innovations; in particular, the direct transformation of the human body. And this is where the gradualness of change is important, because as individuals we have a track record of coping with such changes without falling apart or losing our sense of self entirely. After all, we have all been engaged all our lives in creating a stable sense of our identity out of whatever is thrown at us.”

We should think carefully about technological advance, but leave the scare tactics behind, and give some credit for future generations and their ability to cope as past generations have.

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1. Nina Rosenstand - September 11, 2007

How very encouraging–Tallis is one of the few voices choosing to see the humanity of technology, rather than the inhumanity. We had a speaker in our Social Sciences Occasional Lectures series a few years ago, Linda MacDonald Glenn, an expert on biomedical advances, who told us about the imminent advent of the artificial womb, the invention which will make Aldous Huxley’s fantasy of babies grown and born outside the woman’s body a reality. And while we all know of Huxley’s nightmarish Brave New World, Glenn pointed out that this invention would actually enable infertile couples–or women with a history of miscarriages–to have babies. That being said, while we should remind ourselves of the upside of technology, we have to watch out for incrementalism, the creeping change. While the slow change may present less of a threat to our sense of self than the quick one, that is not always a virtue. As we know, humans can get used to a lot of things we wouldn’t put up with if given the choice, and one way to introduce radical change without much opposition is to have it happen little by little. I’m reminded of the frog in the hot tub. It may be nice at first, and you get used to the water temperature as it increases, but after a while you’re Frog Legs on a menu…Paranoia may be detrimental to progress, but a touch of skepticism is a healthy alternative.


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