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Kirk's Wager: Jaron Lanier on the Imperative of Techno-Optimism
So you might think I’m excessively anti-technological. That’s not true at all. I do think that liberal education should be a counterweight to all our technological obsessions. That means its emphasis—as a countercultural effort—should be subordinating technology (the “how") to properly human ends (the “why”).
But it’s also the case that liberal education includes reflection on the desirability and near-inevitability of technological progress. Technology is a capability given to members of our species alone, and it is a wonderful display of creative personal freedom, even a display of our being made in the image of our personal Creator. Anyone who really thinks about technology can’t really believe that Darwin or evolutionary psychology describes everything there is to know about each of us.
In reflecting on technology from a relatively optimistic view, maybe we can no better than read Jaron Lanier’s recently published Who Owns the Future? His “interlude” called “Modernity Conceives the Future” is full of the insight of a man with both remarkable technological prowess and a sensitive appreciation of a great deal of philosophy and literature. Who can’t love an unapologetic techno-capitalist (and a hater of socialism/communism) who understands that Marx’s description of the creative/destructive power of capitalism has an uncanny relevance today—even or especially because the industrial age has morphed into the informational age? Lanier must be right (or we’re stuck with hoping he’s right) that “the problem is not with technology, but the way we think about technology.”
Let me just call attention to some of Lanier’s most provocative and instructive thoughts on one particular question: “Can We Handle Our Own Power?” I will, of course, include many of my own thoughts. I will sometimes dispense with quotation marks when I borrow his words.
As technology progresses, it is inevitable that our survival will be more and more in our own hands. Personal death will seem less necessary (or according to nature), and so more an accident to be avoided through techno-calculation. The upside is that we can reasonably hope to extend personal survival indefinitely. The hope to techno-separate personal consciousness from the limitations of the impersonal laws of nature that have ensured the destruction of the particular members of every species up until now is, of course, more fantastic. And Jaron doesn’t see people as we experience them now simply disappearing or morphing into something else.
That means, as the philosopher Hans Jonas wrote, we’re stuck with “the imperative of responsibility.” Insofar as being itself means biological life on this planet, we’re increasingly responsible for the future of being itself. There’s no way we can make the world better through techno-expertise—better in the sense of contributing to personal survival and flourishing—without producing more and better means for people to destroy each other and the world. “Expertise is expertise.” That means it can be used for life-enhancing and life-destructive ends.
So, as I already suggested, we’ll feel more secure and more scared. We want to say it’s better to have more control over our fate. But we also have to say that we’re worthy of being trusted. Trust is a problem, of course, because those who are good at manipulating power are often quite malicious. But not only that: Can we be trusted not to make really big mistakes? It goes without saying that we can’t know what the “side effects” of every new techno-development will be. In many respects, the liberation of personal freedom from natural limits makes the future less predictable, not more.
Lanier says technological progress is good because “Growing up is good.” But has technological progress really made us better morally? Is today’s generation of Americans the most grown-up one ever when it comes to personal responsibility and all that? When we look for role models of maturity, do we really think of the techno-geeks who wield the power? The least we can say, as Lanier admits here and there, is that the connection between techno-progress and moral progress is ambiguous. If it weren’t, he might not have bothered to write his humane book.
Global climate change is “an inevitable species-wide right of passage.” It’s one way among many that our freedom affects nature. Natural climate change (ice ages and such) ought to be viewed as plenty scary too. We ought to be optimistic that we can techno-adjust to the change we produced. Then we’ll go on to replace change with more reliable or sustainable techno-control. “After we learn how to survive global climate change, the earth will not be the same place it was before. It will be more artificial, more managed.” Think about that!
It’s a mistake technologists don’t make to imagine that the world before “technologists mucked with it” was a secure and happy home. It wasn’t. Nobody was happy, for example, with a high level of infant mortality or usually not living very long, even if people could be, through faith, somewhat accepting of those allegedly natural facts.
Part of the human identity with which we’re stuck is inventing our way out of the messes caused by our inventions.
Optimism in the face of technological change might be unwarranted. But Pascal says we might as well act as if God exists, because we don’t know for sure he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, no harm done. If he does, there’s nothing worse than that mistake! So Lanier gives us (Captain) “Kirk’s wager.” Let’s be optimistic that the TV versions (as opposed to the dumb movies) of Star Trek, despite the silliness of the techno-details, are basically right. Our techno-future is not only about the endless procession of new gadgets and instruments but likely to be “a more moral, fun, adventurous, and sexy world.” We don’t know, of course, whether such optimism will affect outcomes, but let’s believe it will. (I have to add that I never liked Star Trek, and I’m reminded why when I watch The Big Bang Theory.)
There’s a lot more, but that’s enough for now.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.