Lesson 17: Techno-Utopian-Drift

the Utopian futureFranz and I intentionally used the term “vision of the future” for hope’s promise. Nonetheless, my discussion groups frequently characterized it as utopian. An online conversation with Paul about what he calls techno-utopian-drift, or TUD, convinced me to examine further society’s growing dependence on technology. Both of us believe it is important that society makes decisions about appropriate technologies so it does not end up controlling us, and we think this is not happening for a variety of reasons.

His concept of TUD offers a good explanation. It presents a steady drift towards what he calls the TransHuman. He points to the speed and power of modern technology “creating its own ethics as it sort of digs its own path as it goes along.” Franz and I see this ethic as measurable efficiency that bypasses any ethical or humanistic issues. All three of us agree the drift will continue without any control unless we engage it with moral and humane concerns.

Remember utopia, like eugenics, begins with a search for the good life. However, that is always based on one’s story. A Christian utopia would feature peace, justice, and love; a Nazi utopia, an Aryan nation; a Marxist utopia, a classless society, etc. Problematic, too, is the way laid out to get there. The Nazis exterminate the Jews, the Marxists set up a dictatorship of the people, and some Christians impose their views on the rest of society.

Traditionally, people thought human nature or sin was a primary factor standing in the way of achieving these utopia. The techno-utopia toward which we are drifting claims to bypass human nature. It promises a time when every person can pursue their own version of happiness, because huge computer data banks will use algorithms to examine all possible consequences of our actions. These will also be able to resolve fairly and without bias any conflict of interest that arises. Universal surveillance will dissuade those opposing the direction of the impartial machines from acting out and will easily apprehend them if they do.

Everyone in my discussion groups recognized the drift, although some characterized it as a rush. Maybe half thought the problem lay in technology controlling humans. They pointed to examples such as computers teaching themselves, the speed of machines buying stocks precluding human action, the cost of research forcing a project forward, the need to respond immediately to crises in a nuclear age, and that sort of thing. They worried about computers being able to think but not having human wisdom or compassion.

The other half felt the problem was the humans using technology to control the rest of us. They felt someone always had to program a computer, and used the old “garbage in, garbage out” argument. They worried about who was using the power and speed of technology to exploit others, who were supposedly benevolent dictators of our day. They certainly are not the philosophers in Plato’s Republic.

Both groups agreed with Paul that deep conversation about the decisions that should be made by the people was essential in either case. It is the conversation, not the analysis, that is essential. Paul and I invite the rest of you to throw in your observations. How to you see the techno-utopian-drift?

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    Paul Wildman agreed that the lesson addressed his understanding of techno-utopian-drift. However, when I spoke of the ethic bypassing humanistic issues as measurable efficiency, he commented, “I go further, this efficiency ethic you mention becomes its own naturalizing force such that it reshapes our ethics to be in line with its continuance a little like NeoLiberalism is doing economically – like a fish in water efficiency becomes our water – unquestioned” I quite frankly think this is exactly what happens when technique when trumps all traditional ethical considerations.

  2. Derek Halverson says:

    My main thought is to wonder how many techno-utopists are out there these days, and if any are present in the classes or readership here. It sounds as if there aren’t. I’ve mentioned techno-optimism. But that’s more founded in hope, and comes with an awareness that there’s a downside to much of what could come, especially when it comes to the human spirit. It also comes with the awareness that new types of crimes are being invented even if ancient ones become more difficult.

    But we are certainly drifting (or rushing) along with the technology.

    I wonder if the Church is essentially required to create a path to, in some manner, match the efficacy of technique. Technique may become more prominent, but it isn’t new. Through a blend of support, caring, things like the protestant work ethic, and blessings, the Christian faithful have generally managed that thus far.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      I think Derek is right that the local churches are called to provide a path that corrects the “efficiency only” standard of technology. And I think they are doing that when they gather people together in small groups to share themselves. Church is one of the few places where people from all groups of the community gather.

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