New Technology and Ethics: Where Are We Headed?
One hundred years ago H.G. Wells grappled with the affliction of war. He saw the ebb and flow of civilization, the rise and fall of empire, and the efforts of historians to put things in order; that is, to justify each successive status quo. When I was growing up in Brooklyn I watched a TV version of Wells’ futuristic work The Shape of Things to Come (1933) over and over, in the form of a 1936 film version titled Things To Come, adapted by Wells himself.
The Netflix blurb gets it right: “After decades of world war and a plague that wiped out much of the population, mankind struggles to rebuild its once-great civilization. Progress is at last being made … until the eve of a new manned space flight. Now, fear of another technological era threatens to tear apart the new society.” Cedric Hardwicke leads the charge of artists and writers in an effort to stop the mindless pursuit of Progress.
We now face the New Technology: computers in our homes, cars, schools, business, the street, at the mall. Its reach is everywhere, and we seem to welcome the cold arrival of what was once called Big Brother. Is this emergence a gentle walk into the foothills of a violent, totalitarian future?
Violence has always been the problem that hinders progress, but we have modernized the effect. Old-fashioned warfare has become obsolete. Instead we now have a new world order of powerful governments that feel justified, even obligated, to place us under constant surveillance. These powerhouse nations can easily justify all forms of violence, big and small. Bring in the Drones!
The economic/social/political classes have adapted to reality. Conservatives continue to wish for an idealized past, while embracing the repressive class stratification of the new society. People in the middle and on the left of the spectrum are subject to control mechanisms, if necessary, as various forms of cooptation and selective tolerance seem adequate to stifle unrest or calls for change. Assisted by modern media-based techniques, wealthy elites can easily manipulate opinion among the masses, corrupting the populace by invoking racism, sexism, nationalism, and a generalized hatred of the “other.” It is not surprising that, when given a choice, many individuals and groups simply vote against their own interests. Sadly, the recurring calls for positive change get buried.
We again face the world Wells perceived. What about hope, you ask? Religion in many versions has been seen as the temporizing institution promoting a just world, idealized as a force for ethical behavior and peace. In practice, however, devotion to god has been marshaled into crusades that favor the one true way, and in every era the “just” war has been duly blessed.
In his 1936 version, Wells looked to aviators as harbingers of a new golden age, “wings over the world” to protect the peace. We aren’t that optimistic anymore. As individuals we are relegated to the masses, submerged into a cauldron of acceptance. And so in the absence of moral/ethical growth within our civilizations, experience with any “New Technology” will race us ahead, steering us into our own dark, destructive nature. Gazing into that future, we wonder if Progress has become a four-letter word.
At the end of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald concludes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Tags: Mark Silverman