Friday, May 22, 2009

This Is Your Brain on Science

Because we can invent something, does that mean we ought to? Regardless of the answer to that moral question, it does mean that we will invent it.

Consider this gadget. It scans and analyzes whatever is in front of you--whether it is a book, a can beans, or even a person--then it searches the internet for relevant information, and projects the information wherever you want to read it: a wall, your hand, or the product you are holding. It is at the same time both amazing and (not surprisingly) frightening. At the very end, the speaker suggests that embedding the technology into our brains might be the ultimate goal. The speaker, associate professor Pattie Maes of MIT's Program in Media Arts and Sciences, suggests that this could become our "sixth sense."

On the TED website, some readers were predictably uncritical in their joyful anticipation of the brave new world that awaits us all just over the beautiful horizon of enlightened progress.

One fearless young man writes:

The quantity of people now on this planet and the way we twist our environment to suit us will significantly slow down the process of natural selection and biological evolution. The next step in our evolution lies in augmenting ourselves. Hence the development of genetics, bio-engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. It's up to us to make ourselves better. Implants, and indeed all technology, should never remain in the domain of fixing what is broken, but used to make what exists better.

We have it in our power to make ourselves "better." Of course, he means simply "more powerful," and by that he means "having greater power over, or control of, our world." Machiavelli called it the conquest of fortune. But for Machiavelli, power is always personal. The state that a prince governs is "his state." A century later when Francis Bacon spoke of "the conquest of nature," he had the same idea in mind, and he was fully aware of C. S. Lewis's insight that the dominion of "man" over nature is always the dominion of some men over other men. There is no basis for believing that these "enhancements" will bring unambiguous improvement to people's quality of life.

Bobbie Carlyle's "Self-Made Man"

This happy optimist sees movement here toward,
...integrating the 'unused' capacity in our brains into the rapidly evolving data cloud that is growing throughout this planet. For many years heavy use projects all over the world have solicited unused computing capacity on millions of connected computers to process huge data streams and allow projects on a scale not possible with local hardware capacity. Is this technology a first glimpse into the possibility of using the vast power of human brains as a common resource?

Why should I get to keep the unused portions of my brain when there are others who can put it to work for the good of humanity? Imagine all our brains connected into a worldwide mental internet. A common resource. The ultimate private space would be turned over to public use. But people can't even share a dorm room or a desk without conflict. Consider also the public authority that would govern the public use. Do you want to invite that authority into your brain?

A gadfly in the ointment of hope pictures a policeman approaching you with this device, scanning you, and saying: "Hello, I'm Officer Smith. I see you're Catholic, own two guns, traveled to Israel last year, and frequently post on blogs. Are you attending your AA meetings? Did your wife's infection clear up? I see you don't live in this area. Why are you here? You can't be shopping because your credit cards are maxed out."

In our rush to restore science to its "rightful place" in government, we should pause to ask what the government's source of moral guidance is. More importantly, what is the source of moral guidance for those who are electing the government? Professor Maes teaches media arts and sciences. We use our media arts to debunk the very idea of moral guidance, and then with just as much social energy we use the sciences to acquire power that cries out for the moral guidance we have silenced.


Citizen.VII said...

Transhumanism can be difficult to wrap one's mind around. They attempt to answer the crisis of the last man by moving beyond homo-sapiens. It's like comic books applied to the real world, except that they don't care if their science completely changed what "the real world" is. So they would agree with Lewis, and say "Yes, that's exactly what we're trying to do." Even if they would admit that all men are equal, they would still set themselves above other men, because they are transhuman.

David C. Innes said...

I am reading Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, the third in his philosophico-scifi trilogy. He deals with these issues. It is good to read alongside The Abolition of Man.