The December edition of the Atlantic Monthly has a very interesting article about Freeman Dyson’s famously skeptical view of climate change – he has come out forcefully suggesting that it is just not something we should worry about. For those who don’t know, Dyson is a brilliant physicist who has spent much of his career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and has been both a practicing scientist as well as one who shares his insights on a regular basis with the general public – in 1996 winning the Lewis Thomas Prize for writing about science. The author of the article, who has known Dyson for many years, ponders the question of how someone so brilliant could be in such profound disagreement with the rest of the scientific community?
The interesting part of the answer for me was this: that Dyson has an unfailing confidence in the redemptive power of technology. I think that this attitude is at the heart of the many of the debates in neuroethics – are we enthusiastic about the potential advantages that a particular technological development (be it drug, device, or something else) may provide, or are we skeptical, referring again and again to the precautionary principle as our guiding light?
Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine and hardly a technophobe writes,
“The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. The jet packs don’t work, and the Daily Me is full of spam. No one finds the Future attractive any longer.”
I think that Kelly is correct in dating the rise of techno-skepticism to the arrival of the atomic bomb. The industrial revolution, starting in the latter part of the 18th century, began the process by which technology transformed life, but one the key features was that it not only made life easier for many, but also raised the living standards of the masses in a way that was unprecedented in human history. By the time the atom bomb was developed, the middle class was already quite comfortable, and although living standards (in the West, at any rate) continued to rise through the second half of the 20th century, the baseline from which these changes developed was nowhere near as dramatic.
If the bomb caused unease, it was the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 which initiated a period of angst about the impact of technology upon nature, a sentiment that has been pervasive and growing as people witness one advance after another being first touted as a panacea, followed in due course by unappreciated problems. The prevailing sentiment today is much more akin to Kelly’s insight about the attitude towards progress than Dyson’s enthusiastic embrace of technology.
Where do you fit on the spectrum from techno-enthusiast to techno-phobe, and does that inform your opinions on matters neuroethical?
Link to the article in The Atlantic
Link to Kevin Kelly’s blog post