The Techno-Human Condition
Braden R. Allenby
The MIT Press, 2011
240 pp., $24.95
Christina Bieber Lake
Both sides of the technology debate, the authors argue, are enamored of Enlightenment assumptions about how much control and power we actually have as individuals and as a society. Transhumanists tend to think that enhancing individual brains (for example) will necessarily eventuate in a better society, but this is decidedly not so, as enhancement by individuals "does not aggregate well." Opponents, Allenby and Sarewitz insist, tend to argue with the same set of assumptions. They are both fatefully misguided. The ever-shifting evolution of technology will be driven by "economic efficiency and competition for military and cultural dominance, not quality of life or 'better humanness,' even if we knew (or could agree on) what the latter was." In my opinion, this point cannot be made often enough.
Historically, assuming individual choice and control has led to blindness about Level III complexities. A stunning example is how the 19th-century development of the railroad changed the economy, our sense of time, and social structures—all in unpredictable ways. We should heed the example well, for today a cluster of new technologies are changing us equally quickly and substantially: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology (ICT), and applied cognitive science. The authors discuss examples ranging from the military's development of cyber-insects (both real bugs guided by electronic circuitry and electronic gizmos behaving like bugs) to telepathic helmets and lethal autonomous robots, all to show how quickly our advanced techno-human future is coming, and how radically, and unpredictably, human life will be redrawn.
Though the approach that Allenby and Sarewitz advocate will be unsatisfying to some, it is unabashedly and refreshingly pragmatic. Rather than lock ourselves into a do-or-die vs. do-and-die debate about technology, we must muddle through the complex scenarios with humility. What we call problems are usually conditions, and conditions require balanced and prolonged attentiveness, not one-size-fits-all answers. Not only can enhancement technologies not be predicted with certainty, they can never resolve our conflicting values about what future would be most desirable.
It is so rare for anyone to argue for humility these days that my ears pricked up. This book helpfully illuminates the dangers of a way of thinking that is not in the habit of asking the right kinds of questions. To my delight, the authors even give a nod to the importance of speculative fiction in asking ourselves what kind of persons we are so bent on becoming. We need humility to recognize how often we don't even know what is best for us. If I were queen, I'd stipulate that every major biotechnological firm emblazon this quotation from The Techno-Human Condition on their walls: "If we don't embrace and understand our incompetence we will never manage our technological prowess."
The only substantially frustrating thing about Allenby and Sarewitz's argument is their tendency to set up straw men when characterizing the debates surrounding enhancement technology. While proponents of transhumanism can readily be seen to occupy certain Enlightenment biases toward progress, opponents cannot be so easily categorized. Allenby and Sarewitz make it sound as if the only people arguing for restraint and caution are those who defend a view of the human person as having an inviolate human nature, one that should not be touched by technology at all. This is simply not true. Similarly, they claim that thinkers like Jacques Ellul make arguments that are "all Level II, all the time." This is not true either, and may even be ironically self-defeating. Allenby and Sarewitz seem to most want a lively debate in which Level III questions can be addressed in all their complexity, with an awareness of guiding values, not just outcomes. While they recognize the importance of different perspectives in such a debate, they devalue the contributions of the thinkers who, precisely because of their "coherent worldview" convictions, are trying to raise the larger questions such as: "Whose values? Which outcomes?"