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on unstable foundations, and as such, this paper will also argue that neither position will prevail. Human society and civilization will continue existence as an embodiment of various opposing checks and balances in fluctuating dominance that prevents either vision of technology from coming to pass. Technological utopians place certain foundational ideas as the core of their beliefs. One such popular idea is that technology is a cornucopia of goods and services that will transform the way people live, work and play. Some focus on the positive transformation of individual lives, at home, at work, in education, in health, in entertainment etc (Noll, 1997: 5-12). Others comment on the possibilities of revolution in society as a whole, where humans become more efficient, use less resources to achieve more, create limitless choice for human consumption, maximize efficiency through usage of AI in management and transform the environment in which we live (Mitchell, 1999: 147-154). There are also those who see our linear progression through history in technological innovation as a fulfilment of human destiny, where we transcend our earthly bonds, gaining complete mastery over “life, the universe and everything else”1. We would be able to manipulate everything, including ourselves, all physical objects, down to the cellular or atomic level, and mould our environment into whatever we deem fit (Zey, 2000: 3-13). Human society would become one complete happy family, with all contributing to the same goals (Zey, 2000: 6-7). We would become a species of Godlike creatures, to be whatever we wish to be and do whatever we wish to do (Zey, 2000: 12-13). Conversely, dystopian visionaries suggest that unfettered technological progress would actually be detrimental to the human condition. Damage to human health due to new and deadlier forms of pollution (Mander, 1992: 54-56); zombification of human labour as people are gradually moulded to conform to machine standards (Mander, 1992: 56-57); centralisation of knowledge, information and power, enabling the entrenched powers and elites to preserve and extend their privileged position relative to the general masses (Mander, 1992: 67-69); are some common criticisms concentrating on the harmful social and political repercussions of technological change. Others take the long term view that technology will essentially culminate in a sentient Artificial Intelligence, which will become the primary competitor to humans in the fight for scarce resources on our planet (Joy, 2000). Essentially, Joy believes that we must be careful that in our pursuit of continuing
1 Phraseology inspired by Douglas Adam’s book “Life, the Universe, and Everything”.
technological growth we do not sow the seeds of our own destruction. One can argue that the engine driving technological progress are the ideas produced by the human mind, and the fuel is the physical universe. Ideas are themselves either derived from previous ideas (Heilbroner, 2003:399), or gleaned from understanding the rules governing our universe. Technology also need not necessarily be actual physical objects, but also concepts or methods. For example, money is a form of technology, but it does not have an actual physical presence, as the paper on which the value of money is printed does not have any intrinsic value, but rather acts as a focus of trust in which value is stored. Therefore it can be argued that all technologies are essentially the physical manifestation of ideas from within the human mind. The only way to control or stop the production of ideas is to either control the mind, or take away the universe. Thus the first of the core arguments in this paper is that as long as the universe still exists, human sentience will never cease to create new ideas, which manifest in a physical form as technological innovation and progress. Consequent to this line of reasoning is the argument that the human/technology distinction is an artificial one. The desire to understand our environment and our universe is central to the concept of human sentience, and accordingly, so is the creation of ideas and technology. It is also this very sentience that we humans possess which allow us to consider and decide whether to believe or act upon ideas that we encounter. Every time we think, we create the seeds to the creation of new technologies. Every time we communicate, we give our ideas the potential to shape other minds. What this means is that as much as human minds create or shape ideas, ideas also shape and influence human minds. That these ideas can exist in a physical form or as a physical product does not make the idea any more separate or distinct from the human mind. The reality is that technology is not an “externally controllable mechanical system” (Mumford, 2003: 350-351), separable from humanity, but rather an inextricable part of what it means to be human. Even characteristics that define homo sapiens such as language, tool usage, domestication of plants and animals etc can be classified as technological innovations. Thus we submit that arguments for either social determinism or technological determinism prove to be inadequate in addressing criticisms from the opposing view, as each ideology can only see one side of the coin, but not the whole coin. The next core argument suggests a possible way to address the relationship between
technology and society. Since the human mind is defined by ideas, while ideas only exist because of human sentience, we can therefore posit that humanity and technology exist in a symbiotic relationship, neither being viable without the other (Arnold & Klugman, 2003: 4.1.3). This reasoning allows for the consideration that technology may be autonomous and yet unable to be discretely separated from humanity (Arnold & Klugman, 2003: 4.1.4). Technology cannot drive itself without human involvement, and the very act of human participation renders the human mind more than just a mere vessel devoid of volition or will. Rather than being the reproductive organs of machines (McLuhan, 1964: 46), we propagate the ideas of technology, ideas which can only arise out of human sentience. Thus in the replication of technology, we reproduce our ideas, and by extension, our minds and ourselves. Based upon this premise, we also argue that the concept of a linear progression of technology through history is an illusory one. Changes in technology are due to new ideas, which are in turn due to new understanding or insights from human minds. Whether or not the new technology can be deemed “better” or “worse”, “good” or “bad” depends entirely on a subjective viewpoint. Efficiency, speed or power are valued differently by different people, or groups of people, hence the value assigned to changes in technology is primarily a social construct, and whether the change is “progress” or “better” is entirely dependent on the human context. As much as shifts in technology can restructure society (Arnold & Klugman, 2003: 4.1.2), its constituents also have a role in determining which among the competing panoply of technology would gain acceptance (Arnold & Klugman, 2003: 4.1.1). There are shifts and there are changes, but the values of “advance” and “progression” depend on context. Hence it would be very difficult to speak of a universal and uniform linear progression of technology through history (Heilbroner, 2003: 399-401). We have been here before. Even the language is similar, as when the scholars and polymaths of the Renaissance speak of Enlightenment, and humanity’s endless potential towards the Holy Grail of Reason. And yet, countless conflicts, two world wars and millions of wasted lives later, we are still the same irrational and brutish creatures ruled by our passions. We see the hubris among the Renaissance men repeated by those who would fashion technology into utopia; we also see that despite our horrendous capacity for inflicting suffering upon our fellow humans, we have time and again survived and thrived through our ideas and technology. Just as Voltaire satirizes the zealous humanists in Candide, we find
the technological utopians a contemporary Dr. Pangloss. Similarly, the dystopians find themselves in an analogous position to those in the Age of Enlightenment who found it fashionable to romanticize the “noble savage”, whose life was “simpler”, “better” and more “natural”. History is not linear; it is cyclical. Voltaire’s prescience speaks both then and now. The concluding argument of this paper is that the cyclical nature of human history is an indication that ideas and structures never maintain a permanent dominance in society. It is the dynamic and fluctuating conflict between idea and counter-idea throughout human history that has ensured competition among opposing ideas. As such, it would be extremely unlikely that a single vision of our technological future would come to pass. While there would be some who embrace any future technology, or opt-out of the network, the vast majority of people would selectively adopt technology to varying degrees. There would be great and wonderful uses of technology benefiting humans and life on our planet, but there would also be atrocious applications of technology designed to harm or create suffering. Amidst the mutual shaping and structuring of technology and society, the essence of human nature will forever remain untouched.
Bibliography Arnold, M. and Klugman, M., ‘Theoretical perspectives’, in Mobile Phone Uptake: a review of the literature and a framework for research, Melbourne: Heidelberg Press, 2003. Heilbroner, R. L., ‘Do machines make history’, in R.C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Joy, B., ‘Why the future doesn’t need us’, Wired Magazine, issue 8.04, 2000. Mander, J., In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of Indian nations, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1992. Mitchell, W., E-topia, 1999. Noll, M., ‘A technological utopia’, in Highway of Dreams: A critical view along the information superhighway, New Jersey: Lawrence Eribaume, 1997. Zey, M., ‘Prologue’, in The Future Factor, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. ‘Ellul’, in R.C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell Publishing, 2003. ‘Heidegger’, in R.C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell Publishing, 2003. ‘Mumford’, in R.C. Scharff and Val Dusek (eds.), Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
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