Technology and the quest for control

Mark Blocher

Many living today have never read George Orwell’s 1984, a foreboding novel in which he prophetically forecasts that corporatism, socialism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism would bring about the eventual demise of individuality, individual freedom and ultimately threaten the survival of the human race. In his fictional futuristic narrative, Orwell warned of the dangers to humankind when a few “enlightened” souls collaborate to “improve” the lives of the unenlightened masses. In the novel, Orwell describes how a technologically advanced fictional world uses “Big Brother” technologies, propaganda machines (news media), and revisionist education to cast the elites in a favorable light and turn the public against all dissidents. The Big Brother government eradicates words like “bad,” forbidding its use in public discourse, replacing it with words like “ungood.”  Promising personal peace and affluence, Orwell’s 1984 narrative describes how the few acquire power over the many, and the novel ends with this disturbing picture: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.” His message is clear: The human quest to control, even for supposedly utopian purposes, inevitably devolves into totalitarianism and tyranny.   

I was reminded of 1984 when I recently gave a short presentation on an emerging philosophy that calls itself “transhumanism,” a worldwide intellectual movement based on the belief or theory that the human race can advance well beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. The movement contends that humans are in the very early stages of evolutionary development, and that the tools of science and technology give us ways to overcome natural biological limitations and usher in a dazzling post-human epoch. Pointing to developments in artificial intelligence, nanoscience, neuropharmacology, computer-brain integration and genetic enhancement, transhumanists utilize Orwellian doublespeak to predict a reachable golden age where we produce “better humans” and finally conquer Nature. Of course, the Transhumanist Declaration speaks of this utopian dream in the most charming, humane language. Like Orwell’s 1984 “dystopia,” nothing is bad—just ungood.

Long before these transformative technologies ever existed, C.S. Lewis warned about the consequences that would follow the human quest to use science and technology to achieve the submission of Nature to human dominance. Man’s power over nature actually means the power of a few over many, with each successive generation exercising power over its successors. Lewis wrote, “If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we MAY have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. … The real picture is that of one dominant age … which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car. ... The power of Man to make himself what he pleases … means the power of some men to make other men what they please.” (The Abolition of Man)

Orwell’s and Lewis’s warnings seem even more timely amid the rapid development of powerful new technologies that transhumanists covet in their vain attempt to re-engineer humans at a time when society lacks a unifying moral consensus on what counts as a human person. The doublespeak used in the ongoing debate about the identity and moral status of preimplantation human embryos and the willing accomplices in higher education, government, and the news media who perpetuate the dehumanizing of the unborn, the infirm and the enfeebled validate Orwell and Lewis’ concerns. We face the truly terrifying prospect of a few utopian dreamers, lacking moral restraint and filled with hubris, dominating the lives of billions by technological means.

Do you think this is not possible? Consider this: How much control over your daily life do the Internet, social media, mobile devices and computer programmers exercise? How much wealth have the few who own these platforms of control amassed and now use to expand their control even further? Their powerful platforms in just a short period have distorted human relationships and perverted social norms. We know from some early research that these platforms re-wire the human brain, form and fuel addictions, and contribute to many social pathologies that harm marriages, reputations, and overall human well-being. These platforms disrupt sleep and work productivity, and these media platforms bring into your home people you would not otherwise invite into your home. Their technologies not only possess the power to satisfy wants, they create new wants.

Because of these supposedly “values neutral” technology platforms, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange interesting ideas, they exchange images and often profanity-filled, uninformed opinions. They do not argue with well-reasoned, logical propositions; they argue emotively—about good looks, celebrities, movies, and commercials. Americans worship their dogs, abort their babies, and post pictures of their food on Instagram and Facebook. They drive angry and anonymously on crowded highways where everyone in front of them is an idiot and everyone behind them is a fool, jeopardizing public safety with texting. Through these technology platforms people willingly turn over their personal financial information to online retailers to get free delivery of everything from food to fantasies. They pay to submit their DNA to strangers at MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com and 23andMe to discover their “heritage.” Yet they plaster memes on their social media timeline and bumper stickers on their cars declaring personal freedoms they long ago forfeited on the altar of personal peace and affluence.

Do you think Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bezos (Amazon), Page and Brin (Google), and Cook (Apple) really care about your freedom? Do you believe they lose sleep because they lie awake at night thinking only about how to improve your life? Do you really believe that elite scientific researchers who capture massive amounts of your tax dollars to conduct research so they can patent unique human genes for their own financial benefit really have your best interests in mind? Sure, there is good (or maybe un-bad) to be found in virtually all of the technologies we currently use, and in technologies whose publicized purpose is to prevent disease, disability and premature death. Who would argue against this? However, there is a difference between reverse engineering a disease to find an effective way to prevent its onset or alleviate its effects, and re-engineering the engineer! Transhumanists and their allies are most attracted to the latter. They are not motivated to simply push back the effects of the Fall; they desire to be the cosmic managers of the universe.

Man’s quest to secure godlike control over Nature is nothing new, as we observe from the Biblical account of the Fall in Genesis 3, and in the Genesis 11 narrative about the Tower of Babel. In the Genesis 11 narrative, humans enjoy a common language that unifies them, and they share a common ambition—“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” In direct defiance of God’s post-Flood command to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth,” they sought to seize ultimate control over their lives. Such human hubris seems quaint considering the primitive technology they possessed, especially when we compare it to the technologies we possess today. God’s response to the Tower of Babel utopian dreamers is remarkable. “And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’” God seems to be saying that fallen human beings united by common interests, the ambition to control and access to technology to bring about that control, are virtually unlimited in their potential for evil.

God’s solution to the utopian dreams at Babel was to confuse their language, disrupting communication and coordination. The result was God got His way: they abandoned their utopian project, dispersed and filled the earth. Having read the end of God’s story in Scripture, we know that humans do not end up transforming themselves into post-humans, achieving immortality by technological means. God himself transforms humans from mortal to immortal beings through his own supernatural means, not the puny technologies of God-denying fools. Although much harm can be done to humans by other humans in the name of “progress,” there is no reason for the believer to despair. God remains sovereign over every square inch of his creation.

Samaritan member Mark Blocher is the president/CEO of Christian Healthcare Centers. He served as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Cornerstone University for 15 years. He is the author of The Right to Die? Caring Alternatives to Euthanasia and Vital Signs: Decisions that Determine the Quality of Life and Health.

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