Technotopia? By Andrew Kimbrell

Technotopia? By Andrew Kimbrell

by Andrew Kimbrell
from <>

We are increasingly barraged with disturbing high-tech headlines:

- Medical team announces plan to clone humans
- Nano-robots learn to replicate themselves
- US firms seek patents on human genetic code
- Research mice 'humanized' with fetal organ transplants
- MIT scientists attempt to download human brain into computers
- Up to 5 million children on new generation of psychotropic medication

We are inundated with stories about biotechnology, nanotechnology,
advanced computerization, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics,
cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, and myriad other "new" technologies.
Predictably, the media stories have corporations and researchers
heralding these new technologies as the dawn of a coming utopia of
health and wealth, and yes, perhaps even immortality itself.

The critics, however, warn of dire risks to the environment
and the rending of our social fabric.

What does this all mean? Are the "new" technologies more hype than
help, more science fiction than fact? Are we on the verge of utopia or
Brave New World? Answers to the urgent questions about the future of
genetic engineering, nanotechnology, AI, and other new technologies
can only be found in the context of a review of the past relationship
between humans and technology.

Over the past century, we have witnessed technology slowly becoming
an omnipresent reality for our society, permeating the vast majority of
our public and private lives. Our homes, workplaces, transportation,
food, energy, entertainment, leisure, education, and government have
all become integral elements of the technological grid.

If we tally the time spent in cars, office cubicles, in front of
televisions or computers, using telephones, Palm Pilots, and all our
other gadgets, it is clear that we spend the vast majority of our
waking hours with technology and working for the technocratic
organizations (corporations and bureaucracies) required to run the
vast technological system in which we live. Each of us, more and more,
lives in a kind of technological cocoon where much of our action and
communication is mediated through machines or technocratic

While our earliest ancestors lived fully in the natural milieu, and
our most recent forebears in a more social milieu, modern man now
lives primarily in what sociologist Jacques Ellul called a
technological milieu. For us it is the technosphere, not nature or
even other people, that is the source of our livelihood, food, energy,
education, entertainment, and vision of progress.

For some at least, the substitution of technology for natural and
social environments represents an immense improvement for humankind.
Author and engineer Samuel Florman writes, "I can see no evidence that
frequent contact with nature is essential to human well- being." He
goes on to say that technology has saved us from the "callous
brutality, the unbelievable pain, the ever present threat of untimely
death for oneself (and worse one's children) which were the natural
realities with which our ancestors lived."

The respected scholar O. B. Hardison has waxed even more fervent
over the utopian possibilities. He notes that accepting the modern world
"involves faith in silicone devices that is analogous to religious faiths."
Once technology frees us from our "carbon prison" and turns us into
silicon beings, he predicts, we will be godlike: "Silicon life will be immortal.
The farthest reaches of space will be accessible to it."

As the techno-utopian vision becomes ever more futuristic and
paradisiacal, serious problems are developing in the more mundane
techno-life on Earth. Though it may have freed us from certain past
terrors, the technological takeover has spawned unprecedented horrors
of its own.

Our nuclear technology has put all of humanity, and the Earth itself,
on a computer tripline to Armageddon. And our industrial technology
has brought humanity face to face with the first truly global
environmental crisis in recorded history. Over the last two decades
the public has been jolted by revelations about the impacts of
technology on the biosphere-global warming, ozone depletions, species
extinction, deforestation, desertification.

Moreover, even as the technosphere exploits and destroys the natural
world, its inhuman pace exhausts our emotional and spiritual
resources. This has led to an unprecedented shattering of our
communities, families, and psychological well-being.

The crisis over the technosphere's destruction of the natural and
social milieus has created an historic dilemma. Our society and much
of the world's population has become fully dependent on, and deeply
addicted to, the technological environment. Yet this technological
milieu is threatening the very viability of life on Earth-not to
mention our own sanity. It is becoming increasingly clear that we
cannot survive with our technology, yet we can't imagine living
without it.

In the early 1970s some saw this dilemma emerging. Led by prophets
like E. F. Schumacher, they began developing technologies that are
compatible with the natural world, sustainable communities, and the
human spirit.

A small but persistent movement began urging the substitution of
appropriate technologies for the mega-technological system that was
rapidly decimating creation. We dreamed of a time of elegant
technologies that would allow us to spend our time doing "good work"
in harmony with nature, rather than subjecting ourselves to daily
degradation as cogs in the technological machine. We imagined a time
when our work would be true callings engaging us in healing
relationships with creation and one another, allowing us full
expression of our faith in a higher good, and deepening our capacity
for holistic understanding.

What we did not foresee was that the technological elite had a very
different solution to the inevitable and looming technological crisis.
Corporations, academics, and researchers came to realize, albeit
slowly, that current technology is not compatible with life, that the
contradictions between the technosphere and the survival of nature and
society were ever heightening. They, too, saw that a solution was
urgently needed.

To deal with this historic dilemma, the techno-utopians and their
corporate sponsors outlined a breathtaking initiative. This
initiative, however, was not to change technology so that it better
fit the needs of living things, as we were so eagerly advocating. No,
they had, and have, a very different and stunningly self-serving
approach. They decided to engineer life, indeed reality itself, so
that it better fit the technological system.

It is in this chilling context that the enormous significance of the
current revolutions in technology can be fully appreciated. Here we
have the key to the otherwise bewildering high-tech headlines and to
much of our social malaise.

If we despair because our lives have become little more than a frenzy
of meaningless "multi-tasking," their solution is to change us so we
conform with the dehumanizing technological system, rather than change
the process so that it responds to human needs.

Appropriate technology derailed

So change us they have. In the US alone, over 50 million of us are on
psychotropic medication, various mind-changing drugs, to get through
the work day. About the same number of us are on medication to try and
get through the night. And 5 million of our kids are on mind-altering
pharmaceuticals to get through the school day. Not to worry if the
medication is required at ever higher doses or stops working
altogether, or if you've chosen instead alcohol or illegal drug addiction;
the genetic engineers promise us that genes for depression, anxiety,
alcoholism, and even shyness will soon be found and removed.

We have already substituted "virtual communities" for the relationships,
kinship, and neighborhoods lost in our full-time devotion to technology.
Numerous computer scientists ultimately plan to make us all "virtual" by
downloading us into silicon chips, making us "one" with our computerized
office machinery. It is the final solution to the technological dilemma. We
can preserve our dehumanized production system by fundamentally changing
who we are, by becoming technology ourselves.

As we become more efficient human resources for the system, we need
not fear the loss of our natural resources. The nanotechnologists
promise to rebuild the world molecule by molecule so it can be more
efficiently utilized by the technosphere.

Global warming is also conquerable. Plants are being genetically
engineered to resist droughts and radical weather conditions;
ultimately all of life from microbe to man can be engineered to fit
the new environmental realities generated by techno-pollution. The
cruelties of "factory" farming can be overcome not by more humane
systems of animal husbandry, but by changing the basic nature of
animals. Purdue University researchers recently succeeded in removing
the "mothering instinct" gene from laying hens so they could be more
efficient egg laying "machines."

The technosphere, then, is not merely exploiting and wasting the
natural and social milieus. It is fundamentally remaking nature and
human in technology's image. Life and reality itself are being
absorbed into the technosphere and being reduced to mere components in
the system.

With this new initiative comes a profound change in our worldview. As
Thomas Berry says, "nature [and one could add humans] have been
transformed from a community of subjects to a collection of objects."
All of the created order is now seen as mere manufactures: collections
of molecular or genetic information that can be mixed, matched, and
recombined so that they may better serve the needs of the
technological system. It is appalling, but within this context not
surprising, that for the last 20 years (via a one-vote Supreme Court
margin in 1980) the US has allowed the patenting of life, defining all
living forms as "machines or manufactures," under Section 101 of the
Patent Act.

It is axiomatic in much psychotherapy that there can be no healing
without relationship. Through our technology and technocracies we have
horribly wounded much of the natural world, our human and nonhuman
communities, and our very psyches. We cannot heal these wounds without
reestablishing a deep participation with creation, community, and our
spiritual life. However, unless halted, the technological takeover of
life will forever bar this critical rapprochement, permanently closing
off the urgently needed healing process. For with the success of the
new technologies-or even with their more likely disastrous failure-
nature and humanity as we have known them will cease to exist.

Currently ensconced in our technological cocoons, many of us have
become "autistic" to the ongoing destruction of creation and even the
banalization of our own souls. This autism ensures that we will stand
by and passively allow the massive and terrible experiment of the
technifying of life.

This simply cannot continue. By personal and collective acts of will
and imagination we must reassert control over technology. We must
break our addiction to the technological system and free ourselves
from the techno-cocoons. We must take the political, legal, and
organizing steps to say no, to halt these technologies before they are
fully disseminated and decimate nature.

We must also imagine an alternative future, one in which the needs of
nature and society dictate what our technology will be, and not a
nightmarish future where technology dictates the shape of creation and
humanity. It is only through such admittedly difficult work that we
can hope to heal and reestablish relationship with nature and
community. Given the scope and pace of the technological takeover, the
time for such action is short.

Andrew Kimbrell is founder of the International Center for Technology
Assessment (see resource guide, page 46) and author of The Human Body
Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life and The Masculine

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