Techno-Utopia and Human Values

February 3, 2006 by Richard Eckersley

It is our preordained fate, Ray Kurzweil suggests, to advance technologically “until the entire universe is at our fingertips.” The question then becomes, preordained by whom or what? Biological evolution has not set this course for us. Is technology itself the planner?

Originally published in The Futurist March-April 2006. Reprinted on February 3, 2006.

This article is a response to Ray Kurzweil’s feature in The Futurist, Reinventing Humanity. You can also read other responses to Kurzweil’s article by Terry Grossman, John Smart, J. Storrs Hall, and Damien Broderick. Ray Kurzweil’s response to this article can be found here.

Click here to read a PDF of the full feature.

I have sometimes asked audiences if they are inspired or excited by the sort of techno-utopian vision represented by the Singularity; almost no one is. In my surveys over the past decade, I found dwindling minorities of young people (one-fifth to one-quarter) believed in the sort of technical fixes to human problems that Ray Kurzweil champions, while an increased majority (about three-quarters) believe science and technology are alienating people from each other and from nature.

The question I ask is, why? Why pursue this future? I don’t pose this question dismissively, or derogatorily, but out of genuine curiosity and a desire for an open, honest conversation. I’m skeptical of arguments that say pre-technological humans led short, nasty and brutish lives. Yes, life expectancy was lower—mainly because of high rates of infant mortality—but those who survived often lived socially and spiritually rich lives. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to believe humans lived in misery until we discovered technological progress. Animals in the wild don’t live that way humans have been, for most of their history, animals in the wild.

The future world that Ray Kurzweil describes bears almost no relationship to human well-being that I am aware of. In essence, human health and happiness comes from being connected and engaged, from being suspended in a web of relationships and interests—personal, social and spiritual— that give meaning to our lives. The intimacy and support provided by close personal relationships seem to matter most; isolation exacts the highest price. The need to belong is more important than the need to be rich. Meaning matters more than money and what it buys.

We are left with the matter of destiny: it is our preordained fate, Kurzweil suggests, to advance technologically “until the entire universe is at our fingertips.” The question then becomes, preordained by whom or what? Biological evolution has not set this course for us; Is technology itself the planner? Perhaps it will eventually be, but not yet. Is God the entity doing the ordaining? A lot of religious people would have something to say about that, and are likely to strenuously, and even violently, oppose what the Singularity promises, as I have argued before (The Futurist, November-December 2001).

We are left to conclude that we will do this because it is we who have decided it is our destiny. But we have made no such decision, really as the observations with which I began this commentary show.

On February 2 2006, Richard wrote with this followup:

A key issue is this (taken from a 1997 paper of mine in futures):

… Young people are not so much against science and technology: they acknowledge their importance in achieving a preferred future, and almost 70% said science and technology offered the best hope for meeting the challenges ahead. But they are astute enough to realise
science and technology are tools, and their impacts depend on who controls them and whose interests they serve.

They expect to see new technologies used further to entrench and concentrate wealth, power and privilege: for example, they were almost twice as likely to believe that governments would use new technologies to watch and regulate people more as they were that these technologies would empower people and strengthen democracy. They want to see new technologies used to help create closer-knit communities of people living a sustainable lifestyle: for example, they recognised the potential for advances in information and communication technologies to facilitate the creation of overlapping communities—virtual and real, global and local—and the possibility of a sustainable way of life through greater use of alternative energy technologies and renewable resources….

© 2006 Richard Eckersley. Reprinted with permission.