Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 4, 2010

Always Look on the Bright Side of Tech

**What follows is an exercise in applied philosophy and anthropology. Imperfect, without a doubt. But worth talking about.**

How do I hate Windows? Let me count the ways. I’ve been cleaning up and diagnosing problems the past two days on our circa-2005 WinXP Gateway. Thus, I am typing this in the Notepad program now as a multitasking task, while I do some uninstalls, search a hard drive, de-frag a hard drive, and listen to Ani DiFranco sing Amazing Grace (live) — all being done with the same machine, mind you. Plus I can see what time it is, down in the lower right-hand corner of the monitor. I could even be watching a slideshow with my peripheral vision in a separate window off in the upper-left corner if I wanted to. All accomplished by the use of electricity, flowing through some complex arrays of metal and silicone.

My point? Just this: a personal computer is an amazing machine, whether or not it is super-fast, or beefed-up with memory and hard-disk space, or made by Apple, Inc., or physically looks like the latest, sexiest model. My 2nd-grade son just read a book about Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Gustave Eiffel and Louis Pasteur exhibiting their work at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. That was about 125 years ago. Before that, the only electricity that we had any experience with came in the form of lightning.

Now think of how far human invention and technology have come in the past 125 years, compared to the previous 10,000 years. In 1889, plastic did not exist. Plastic. Look around the room you’re in and note how many things are made from plastic. Getting the picture?

We’re now at the point where, with the help of scientists, engineers, creative thinkers and inanimate number-crunching machines, we’re inventing new organic gene combinations. That’s about two steps away from creating life itself –out of nothing but information and a few basic raw materials. We may have differing views when it comes to creating life, playing God, or whatever you want to call it. But that doesn’t change the fact that technology and human knowledge have only recently empowered us even to destroy all life on the planet within a matter of days, for better or worse. If that isn’t aspiring to be godlike, I don’t know what is.

If you spend any time online at all, then last year you probably saw a viral YouTube video of comedian and actor Louis CK on Conan O’Brien’s Late Show, in which CK talked about how spoiled we in the West have become. If you didn’t see it, here it is. Runs about 4 minutes:

Louis cited the development and use of airplanes as a classic example. We get on, zip thru the air, and get off a few hours later thousands of miles away. Ask the ancient Israelites –or even your grandparents– if they would have liked to have that ability. Ask the Haitian people as of right now if they’d like to leave on a jetplane and never come back.

And yet, we humans are not likely to stop complaining about what we can’t do, are we? Why? Because we have a natural distaste for limits, humility, sharing and almost all things “natural”. We prefer to “subdue” the earth, as the book of Genesis puts it, by any means we can discover. And we typically subdue each other, as well. We justify it as the “natural order”, as we compete with each other –and with the animal and vegetable kingdom– for limited resources. It’s the evolutionary imperitive, right?

Wrong. Even without an overarching philosophy or theological system to guide us, if we believed even remotely in *the imperitive of love* above all else (instead of fear), we would have acted quite differently the past 125 years. We would understand what it means to work for the “common good” — a 19th century concept that seems to have gone underground until only recently.

In the age of Marxism (another recent invention dating to 1848), as science and politics subtly went rogue, such cooperation and sharing became tantamount to communism. Then all our old tribal differences kicked into high gear, and in America and Europe we demonized communism as pure evil. That is, until the twin sciences of macroeconomics and social Darwinism took precedence. At that point we expanded our trade efforts with China and Russia, the two largest nations on the planet, setting aside our bias against sharing — at least when confronted with some other tribe or nation whichhas something we want (cheap labor, oil, steel, etc.). Which leaves places like Haiti to struggle, decade after decade — along with most of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Lacking adequate local resources to sustain development, these “developing” nations are left behind, left to try surviving on the gifts and scraps left by the major international players. Or else forced to kill each other over control of a diamond mine, or an oilfield.

On the other hand, I do not wish to be labeled as an ultra-liberal, or a reactionary. I will grant that democracy and capitalism do have natural strengths, and should be held up as models to aspire to as much as possible. But if those flawed systems are used to rationalize violence and abuse — either physical or economic, in Cold Wars, bank bailouts, or massive introduction of pollutants to the atmosphere — then the incredible gains the world has made in the past 125 years will all be for naught… because we won’t be here to enjoy them.

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