Today's date:
Summer 2000

Post-Human History?

In the early 1960s, as the first glimmer of the information revolution emerged with automation, Jacques Ellul ignited a great debate with the publication of his seminal critique, "The Technological Society." The French theologian and philosopher from Bordeaux argued that man risked losing his freedom to the new techniques of efficiency.

Following the anti-technological sentiments voiced by Ellul, students from Paris to Berkeley famously rebelled against a system that would forge human widgets out of whole beings even if it promised to improve their material lives. The first inklings in those years of widespread ecological damage and the risk of Cold War nuclear conflict further fed the fear that man’s tools might be doing more harm than good.
In time, however, the urgency of this debate faded with the self-evident benefits of newfound consumer prosperity and the remarkable advances in fields ranging from computing to materials science to genetics. But for a few marginal kooks like the Unabomber, society’s faith in technology seemed to have been restored. Worries about a silent spring or a nuclear winter gave way to wonderment at the Internet and Dolly, the cloned sheep.

Now the great debate has been revived as computer viruses proliferate, transgenic crops abound and the human species comes to posses complete knowledge of its own genome. One of the leading Internet-era technologists has raised the alarm that democratized technology may fall into the wrong hands, and down the road, robots may prevail. And two of the key thinkers of our time are posing the entirely new question of whether we are entering a "post-human" history.

Francis Fukuyama, perhaps the most prominent American post-Cold War intellectual, and Peter Sloterdijk, the German philosopher, both believe our species is poised for a great evolutionary leap with all the promise and peril that implies. Fukuyama has raised the prospect that human nature itself will be transformed by biotechnology. Sloterdijk argues even more radically that an altogether new creature—"anthropo-technology"—is emerging in which man and his tools merge into one operative system bound by shared information.

Bill Joy, the chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, argues that today’s newest technologies pose a greater challenge to human survival than the nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of the 20th century.

Joy argued in and essay in the April issue of Wired magazine that genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) are different from all previous technologies in that they are self-replicating and knowledge-enabled. This means they are capable of being used by individuals or small groups like the Japanese sect, Aum Shinrikyo, who may try to strike out at society to inflict massive damage.

"Unless we take strong action, " Joy warns, "we are liable to find ourselves with a whole new category of massively destructive technologies all able to be put into action by widely available commercial devices." What concerns Joy most is a bio-engineered plague that could be highly infectious or a "gray goo engineered from materials foreign to the environment that would outcompete the existing biosphere."
Beyond this, Joy fears the role of robots in the future. The title of his essay in Wired "Does the Future Need Us?" refers to this fear. "If we use technology to create robotic intelligences that are superior to ours, " Joy writes, "they might come to view us as expendable." He reminds us of the warning by Hans Moravec about the history of evolution: "biological species rarely survive encounters with superior competitors."

Joy’s recommendations about what to do harken back to some of the same unrealized ideas of the 1960s—a Hippocratic oath for technologists and scientists, global bodies to oversee, if not control, technological change and stricter company liability for their products. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Joy admonishes the scientific community to "relinquish pursuit" of the development of dangerous technologies altogether.

To engage this critical debate, NPQ has brought together Francis Fukuyama, the French writer Jacques Attali, American futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, genetic scientist William Haseltine, eco-engineer Amory Lovins and Peter Sloterdijk. To close out the debate, Bill Joy responds.

In addition, as the institutional heir of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, NPQ publishes here excerpts from that first spirited discussion on "the technological order" sponsored by the Center in 1963 in conjunction with Encyclo-paedia Britannica. That discussion starts with a long argument by Jacques Ellul with responses by the "father of the radar" William Watson-Watt, Aldous Huxley and the Center president and legendary University of Chicago "great books" educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ
Executive director, Center for the Study
of Democratic Institutions

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