It is time to take a step back and examine how we view “technology” and “progress” and the potential creation of a utopian future society.
In the year 1997, the movie Gattaca was released, showcasing a society where genetic testing determined the nature of workforce segregation, mate selection, and government surveillance, among other things. A memorable scene in the movie is where the woman protagonist checks out her love interest’s genetic makeup from a hair strand within a matter of a few minutes:
Three years later, in 2000, the first working draft of the human genome was released, and in 2006 it was declared as completed. In 2008, the government of the United States passed the The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) as an act to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of genetic information with respect to health insurance and employment.” This, ideally, would protect most American citizens legally against a Gattaca-like scenario.
In the year 2011, personalized “direct to consumer genetic testing” has become a common though not universally available commercial service. Until now, genetic testing has been available mostly to healthcare professionals, genetic researchers, and counselors. The availability and increasing affordability of PCR thermal cyclers, gene sequencers, and sophisticated interpretative software have enabled companies with the impetus to invest in such ventures. Making a fortune from spit has never been easier!
There are many promises and forecasts spouted out in PowerPoint presentations around the world by futurists. The most popular is that personal genomics testing/profiling would bring in the era of personalized medicine. Oh, and that the human body would now be viewed for treatment as an ‘ecosystem’.
To me, this notion of personalized treatment is rather amusing since I hail from an oriental culture. In the oriental medical systems, say the Chinese herbal remedies or India’s Ayurveda, treatments have always been given out in a personalized manner according to the individual and in a holistic manner (treating the entire body rather than a specific ailment or part). Therefore, this much tweeted and bookmarked brave new era is being given importance in what is probably a repetitive trend-line area.
The era of personal genomics is yet another addition to the long list of hugely extrapolated changes being undertaken to radically improve “the human condition.” Other popular facets requiring fantasy exposures would be aging and death. Nobody in the world enjoys becoming old and slowly withering away.
Legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor, in 1946 and in 2008
Biological cells lose their vitality and regenerative capacities over time. They die. We become susceptible to disease, disability and distress.
But just when you thought all hope was lost in this inevitable cycle of life and death, in come the futurist soothsayers who show you enormous graphs of how lifespan has actually increased from the tribal to the urban age. For example, if you are pushing 70 with a progressively debilitating disease, you are expected to find solace in the fact that people used to die very young in the past and that within a short period of time (by which you will be dead anyway), lifespan is set to increase exponentially.
In case the person gets depressed that they won’t be alive to live in this future, all you have to do is cryonically preserve your body and hope to wake up in the future, without a huge electricity bill waiting for you. All these promises can be proven because laboratory mice are nearing immortality. In case you are having logistic concerns, artificial intelligence would become self-aware and leave the humans enough leeway to explore the upcoming human machine symbiotic cyborg bodies. Consciousness (with an addendum of all your collective life experiences and emotions) could just as easily be uploaded onto a computer thanks to the very accommodating Moore’s Law. We can choose posthuman body skin pigmentation to be blue, black, or green according to the prevalent atmospheric conditions of the future.
Oh! and along the way we would enable the primates, mammals, and other aesthetically “cute” animals to reach our level of sentience. Then there is the case of synthetic biology which is being hyped as the next big IT industry, which is not entirely untrue. However, it is getting stretched a bit too far when sensitive assembly of chemical nucleotides are being compared to a simplistic LEGO assembly. All in all, we are set for an incredible future that shall completely change and improve “the human condition.” Just how far is this future? It is very near. Actually, it is somewhere right at the top of that graph. Should we be so optimistic and happy? No.
Fifty years ago, Daniel Boorstin published The Image, a critique of the media and “pseudo-events” where he described how society loved to fantasize itself with threats of a posthuman era and created these “pseudo-events” and “pseudo-celebrities” as a reflection point of our own condition. His observations do hold true to our present situation.
We are perpetually consumed by this “double life” scenario between what we project our society to be, and the society we actually live in. Impregnation of fantasy expectations portrayed in movies and other art forms into reality is a much favored venture of the human species. Laws of acceleration and trends of minimalism have increased the inclining curve of technological progress and physio-dimensional proportions. Energy, computing power, and genetics have all been favored playing fields.
The technologies or their advancement is in itself not to be blamed since their evolution is a natural inevitability of human civilization. In fact, all of the previously mentioned technologies hold great promise in improving the human condition.
Answers and newer knowledge on genomics and proteomics would increase our knowledge about our origins, strengths, and susceptibilities. We will have improved specific medications for serious ailments. Synthetic biology would bring down delivery timelines for precision drug design and delivery systems at the nano-scale. Sentience generation in other species would enable their utilitarian exploitation. Research into mice longevity would indeed eventually contribute to human longevity. However, I think that too much hype is being placed in the wrong direction.
Why are we fascinated by these technological fantasies? It is because we are no longer willing to accept disease, death, and suffering as mere occurrences of destiny. We look up to scientific methods and technologies to effectively and surgically remove our deficiencies whether it is our bodies or our environment.
This might just be the reason why many progressive futurists would like to throw the brick at moral systems and restrictions posed by organized religion. We must further understand and explore this phenomenon. The lines defining morality can easily be brushed aside as an excuse to make way for technological progress. However, importance of morality and religion as a dictum for human behavior and regulator of social order is of fundamental importance.
Every stage of human civilization has depended on some kind of distorted or logical moral codes to maintain order and synchronicity. However, are we mature enough to completely remove ourselves from self-imposed restraint systems? Our present biological nature compels us to revert to chaos once order is removed. All it takes is another hurricane or a depletion of basic resources to start the next global war. We should constantly remember this fundamental weakness in our nature as an excuse for the continued existence of morality, religion, regulations.
The problem has never been with religion but with its interpretation according to the whims and fancies of its promoters. Technological progress shall always pose ethical concerns but they need not be sensationalized. At this point, I must point out my amusement at the stereotype religion leaders who use Twitter and Facebook to popularize superstition against the very technology they so claim to despise. I would also like to point out my equal amusement at scientists and rationalists who are so obsessed with destroying religions while endlessly engaging in the same profiteering strategies as their evangelical brothers. I am pretty sure that movements against religion are almost as profitable a business venture as those for religion.
Here we are then. We fantasize that all of our greatest weaknesses as a biological organism in this planet shall be overcome with technological progress, which is not entirely untrue. We look forward, as we always have, towards a grandiose future where everyone experiences utopia. There is nothing wrong with that. What must be put in check, at least at this stage of our evolution as a species, is the attitude of wanting more and more from technology and the resources around us. This anthropocentric greed shall be our undoing unless it be checked.
The other most important thing to do is to take stock of what we have. We are a beautiful species who can self-comprehend and realize beauty in the world around us. We are unlike most of our animal brethren who cannot view the world as anything but a grazing field.
Let us promote those feelings with the technological comprehensions that are accorded to us. Knowledge of the gene pool data should enable us to strengthen nondiscrimination within the human race rather than serve as a tool for determining life insurance policies. Synthetic biology and targeted drug design should be aimed at bringing down the cost of medicines rather than increase the number of patents and other proprietary lockups. Cheaper technology is available, so why not make it easier on third world markets?
The occurrence of revolutionary protests aimed at overthrowing suppressive governments by use of social networking technology is very encouraging. But why is there not the same zeal for promoting education? What is preventing the generation of open-access universities and validated certifications? Why should scientists in third world countries still be restricted and made to pay a premium price for access to published data in international journals?
Isolated instances of technological democratization cannot outweigh the prevailing backlogs of its accessibility around the world. Technological progress is being peddled as nothing more than info-tainment. This peddling should stop. Technological progress is not in the future; it is happening now. However, we still lack the open-mindedness and maturity to create universally applicable technologies. Most drugs are still unavailable to the general human population due to proprietary restrictions.
It is time to reduce the stereotypical soothsaying of upcoming technologies. Instead, it should become important to critically evaluate the applicability of prevalent technologies to all sections of human society. Otherwise, we are most definitely headed down a slippery slope instead of moving up towards the Singularity. Let us therefore take stock, appreciate our existence, and increase the quality of technology rather than quantity. The way we look at and react to “the human condition” must undergo a fundamental transition.
V.R. Manoj has a Ph.D in Environmental Biotechnology/Sciences from Anna University, Chennai, India. He has worked in the Renewable energy industry and currently teaches Environmental Sciences and Engineering to Engineering grad students in India. Dr. Manoj was an IEET Affiliate Scholar for 2010-2012.
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