Technology cuts two ways

The explosion of an experimental nuclear bomb in New Mexico in 1945 made it blindingly clear that the Industrial Age was over. This event showed with terrifying clarity that scientific knowledge, mathematical skill, and engineering prowess can be used for unthinkable levels of destruction. The combined wonder and terror of this culmination of the Manhattan Project prompted its leader, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to remark: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Intended or not, this line from Hindu sacred text (the Bhagavad-Gita) gave the event an appropriately sinister footnote. Most significantly, Albert Einstein remarked: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

I’m sure I was not the only youngster whose mind that day was dramatically reset regarding the meaning of “progress.” It shifted my mind forever regarding the use of technology to advance civilization.

How this profoundly disturbing event radicalized geopolitics is amply recorded in the history of the 20th century. I’ll not go there. My intent here is to focus on that side of technology that cuts the wrong way, humanly speaking, a matter generally glossed over or altogether ignored.

The drive to scientize reality has been an obsession of futurists since at least theAge of Reason. In the 20th century it had the effect of making every new generation wake up to a sci-fi world that even Jules Verne or H.G. Wells could not have predicted. A tech race heated up in the 1960s that caught even contemporary futurists with their pants down. It surprised even me, who at that time was at the cutting edge of computer programming technology. By 1970 things were in fact becoming obsolete as fast as introduced.

As high tech proceeded to fashion our sci-fi world, transistors in integrated circuits (“microchips”) were becoming smaller than bacterial cells and electronic circuitry was shrinking to microscopic size. Before long, you could buy a computer for your desk for a few hundred bucks that put to shame the room-­filling computers of the 1960s and 70s costing thousands of dollars!

The reduction of data – visual, aural, mathematical, linguistic – to patterned streams of zeros and ones that a computer could process at speeds approaching the speed of light triggered a revolution in just about everything you could name. I got an inkling of this tech “magic” in the 1960s as a data processing intern for the DOD. None of the predicted advances in technology surprised me, therefore, but how fast they would come and how far they would go did. It led me to wonder if the digital revolution had in fact opened aPandora’s box that would mess up the world faster than it could improve it.

The philosopher in me asked the programmer in me: “Is digital really better than analog? (The musician in me quickly answered no.) Putting the question in a sort of graphic way: Is digitally “pulverizing, then reconstructing things” better than “copying them from nature”? For the programmer the answer was yes. Why would anybody want to keep banks, hospitals, power plants, auto makers, photographers, the wheels of industry, services, research etc., etc., etc. from rising above mechanics-based technologies and soaring to higher potentials of functionality? For the philosopher the answer was that the drive to penetrate to – let’s call it “atomic levels” – for human progress was ultimately dehumanizing and perilous beyond imagining when isolated from moral restrictions.

It bothered me a lot that advances in virtually everything had slipped into mere “process,” with little regard for what is genuinely valuable to human beings. The neglect of human value and disregard for moral imperatives in the calculations for progress really could mess up the world sooner than improve it.

Technology is a tool, not a god. Crossing a threshold of potential evil that could not have been imagined in 1945 when, in the blink of an eye, thousands of boys, girls, women, babies, and men evaporated at Hiroshima, must give pause to the rush for unbridled technological progress. Today’s radical interventions in natural processes like editing DNA, producing chimerical creatures, altering essential properties of almost anything you can name, at minutest levels of operation – all the products of this technology available to leaders wielding power over society – a good question demands a good answer: Are the innovators and movers of our society keeping their minds connected to their hearts?