Techies vs. Neo-Luddites: Progress Action Coalition Formed
June 26, 2001 by Amara D. Angelica
The neo-Luddites are out in force to block new technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The extropians are organizing to defend progress.
Originally published June 26, 2001 on KurzweilAI.net.
“How do we deal with the opposition to technology and biotech from bioconservatives and technophobes?”
Speaking at the event, artist and “cultural catalyst” Natasha Vita-More, Pro-Act Director, said the fledgling organization aims to build a coalition of groups that will take on a broad range of neo-Luddites opposed to new technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, ranging from Bill Joy to Greenpeace, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation for Economic Trends, the Green party, and the current protestors at the BIO2001 conference in San Diego.
As an example, she showed a series of slick ads placed in the New York Times by the Turning Point Project, focusing on the extinction crisis, genetic engineering, economic globalization, industrial agriculture, and megatechnology, which were “full of hyperbole and miscalculations.”
Reason magazine writer and “journalistic critic” Ronald Bailey, author of an analysis of the birth of neo-Luddites, warned that these groups are pushing the “precautionary principle,” which would require that “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically–in other words, regulate first and ask questions later.”
He pointed to the current coalition of environmental activists and anti-abortion fundamentalists currently supporting the proposed Human Cloning Prohibition Act (H.R. 1644) to ban reproductive cloning, which would in turn block stem-cell research and the promise of developing new treatments for illnesses.
“The blood of billions of people is on the hands of people who oppose these technologies–what if you’re wrong?” asked Robert Bradbury (referring to missed opportunities to develop life-saving biotechnologies) during a Q&A, drawing a round of applause. “Get yourselves into therapy,” psychiatrist Dr. Jerry Lamler, medical director of Alcor Life Extension Foundation, advised these groups.
For “tracker of Luddites” Houston attorney Greg Burch, vice president of Extropy Institute, direct conflict with these advocacy groups is unavoidable. “On the religious or spiritualist front, in the end we cannot accommodate limits on our knowledge and actions imposed in the name of supernaturalism, whether based on tradition, imagined revelation or a mish-mash of syncretistic, subjective symbols. On the political front, we do not seek to force our plans on anyone, but ultimately, our basic values of individual autonomy are fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of limitations desired by guardians of both culturally conservative and ‘progressive’ tendencies, whether they espouse some limited ‘liberal’ ideology or are more explicitly collectivist. And we certainly cannot avoid clear conflict with arguments by cultural conservatives like Leon Kass, who oppose human cloning and genetic augmentation based on an irrational ‘moral disgust.’”
However, in an interview with KurzweilAI.net, Vita-More said Pro-Act doesn’t want to “point a harsh finger but to work toward a higher level of communication and open debate while encouraging the public to ask questions, find reliable sources, and think about all aspects of these issues. Those who are opposed to advanced technologies have concerns that need to be addressed, such as takeover by global corporations, genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered foods, environmental toxins, and the question of who is in control of our genetic future. Many of these concerns are valid to a degree, but these groups base them more on ideologies and fundamental fears than on knowledge of technology. The basic goal we can agree on is extending and improving life. How much, through what means, and by whom is the argument.”
“Imagine it is the year 2030 and we are looking back on our accomplishments of the past three decades,” she says on the Pro-Act Web site. “How should our time be best remembered? How about: Cancer reduced to a minor health problem that is easily curable; Billions of people enjoying lives enhanced by connection to a rich global cultural network; nanotechnology solving the environmental damage of past centuries; Art forms barely imaginable today enriching the lives of a population made more creative through new technologies and new ideas; or, the dream of true artificial intelligence realized, adding a new richness to the human landscape never before known.
“If we take action now, we can have a major impact on how the world views efforts to prolong and improve life, advance the world’s knowledge about positive technologies, improve the environment, promote space travel, and address fundamental issues in education, the environment and the quality of life for the vast majority of humanity that still lives in hunger, fear and ignorance.”
The Extropy Institute “brings together the finest critical and creative minds to challenge conventional thinking about human limits and to develop, critique, and implement new ideas about the use of technologies of all kinds to improve the future,” according to its mission statement.