There was considerable sense and occasional nonsense on tap last night at a panel discussion at UC/Berkeley inspired by a new essay collection titled “Living with the Genie: Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery.” (One of the book’s editors, Christina Desser, moderated.) The premise, as presented by panel introducer Michael Pollan, is that “we are on the threshold of vast technological changes” — in areas such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and advanced computing — that will alter “what it means to be alive and to be human.”
Our reactions to the prospect of these changes tend to fall into two categories, Pollan said: Either “it’s never gonna happen” or “it’s inevitable, it’s just a matter of time and the market.” Both reactions foster a passive stance; instead of the “ossified debate between techno-utopians and neoluddites,” can we “take the dialectic someplace new?”
Pollan’s challenge was a useful one. Howard Rheingold took it up by reminding us that the Internet as an open platform isn’t something we can or should take for granted: it needs to be actively defended, as digital rights management schemes and “trusted computing” checks begin to be baked into the hardware that we rely on to access the network.
Investigative reporter (and longtime Salon friend and contributor) Mark Schapiro suggested that as genetic manipulation becomes more widespread, it is outstripping our existing legal and political institutions — for instance, a maritime system that evolved to deal with 18th-century needs leaves us today in the position where no one bears responsibility when a ship full of deadly cargo founders.
Denise Caruso, who has spent recent years building the Hybrid Vigor Institute, said that as we “increase the complexity of our environment exponentially,” “innovation at any cost” is no longer defensible. She called for a new focus on active risk assessment. The appalling status quo is that most biotech innovations are released into the natural world with little care or forethought: Caruso cited the example of bioengineered, Monsanto-produced Bt Corn, which received government approval without any studies considering its impact on “non-target species” (like Monarch butterflies).
“This is not just hysterical Luddism,” she said. But it’s an uphill battle, because “government and industry like things the way they are right now.”
I found Caruso’s rigor and Rheingold’s speculative imagination provocative and helpful — particularly in contrast to the Panglossian presence of inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, the final panelist. Kurzweil was actually videoconferenced in from his Massachusetts home, and his larger-than-life image hung peculiarly over the proceedings, disembodied and disengaged. (Christian Crumlish has blogged a photo so you can see what I mean.)
Kurzweil’s speech was laden with statements like “Human knowledge in general is doubling every year” and “The rate of progress itself is doubling every decade.” Like some blinkered throwback to high-Victorian cockiness, Kurzweil blithely assured us that “continued progress is inevitable.” I understood he was referring to empirical measurements of processor speed, storage, telecommunications bandwidth and the like. (You can read a detailed exposition of Kurzweil’s notions of the coming “singularity,” in which artificial intelligence will surpass the human brain, here.)
But there’s a deep chasm between the notion of precisely-measured technical advancement and the subjective concept of qualitative “progress.” Evidently, Kurzweil — like some Bugs Bunny character who’s charged off the edge of a cliff but hasn’t yet realized there’s air under his feet — has failed to notice this divide. That leaves his vision of the future as disconnected from the messy, intractable realities of human behavior as the speaker himself was from the ebb and flow of last night’s conversation, by virtue of his own virtuality.
When someone coming from such a rhetorical perspective starts talking about “expanding our knowledge” through “intimate merger with our technology,” you want to run to the wash room and toss water on your face. In such company, the clarity of skeptical optimists like Caruso and Rheingold helps keep us sane.