Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bad Medicine

Tonight I watched the pilot episode of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, one of whose subplots involved people who make magical cursing packets, which require among other things real human fingers. The customer for such goods in the story is a powerful criminal, a gangster and gun runner. It occurred to me that while such witchcraft does cause real harm to the people who supply the ingredients, and perhaps some psychological harm when people know and believe that they have been cursed, they are strictly limited in the amount of harm they can really do.

As I watched, I imagined someone like Richard Dawkins fulminating about the deception involved in witchcraft -- the irrationality, the false claims. "I can make your enemies suffer from a distance," the sorcerer tells his or her client. "They can't escape from your wrath." To the science cultist, this is outrageous, since the sorcerer can't really make good on these promises, he or she really has no such power, and is deceiving the client. These people need to be enlightened! How awful superstition is!

No doubt it is. But then I thought of the way that scientists have served their powerful clients. No one could accuse them of failing to make good on their promises.
In their elite obeisance and service to established power, the twentieth-century proponents of the religion of technology have outdone their predecessors. The engineers of nuclear weapons, endowed from the outset with the authority and limitless largess of the state, have devoted their energy and imagination to an enlargement of state power. And their counterparts and colleagues in space exploration have done likewise. Von Braun aimed at the stars but hit London and Antwerp, on behalf of the Third Reich. Later he prepared for future terror on behalf of the American armed forces. Throughout most of their careers, the men who built the U.S. (and Soviet) space programs served military ends; in their quest for space travel they brought the world but minutes away from mutually assured destruction. Thereafter, under the nominally civilian auspices of NASA, they have continued to contribute to the militarization of space, in terms of both surveillance capability, and the capacity for weapons development.

In the same setting, the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, in quest of the eternal mind, have been sustained by the U.S. military – together with their disciples in Artificial Life, cyberspace, and virtual reality. As they have trained their minds for transcendence, they have contributed enormously to the world arsenal for warfare, surveillance, and control. And they have also placed their technological means at the disposal of manufacturing, financial, and service corporations, which have deployed them the world over to discipline, deskill, and displace untold millions of people, while concentrating global power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands.

[David F. Noble, The religion of technology: the divinity of man and the spirit of invention (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp 205-206.]
So, Science the Self-Correcting Way of True Knowledge has delivered on at least some of its promises. (Not always, of course: the promise of medical science to "cure" homosexuality never panned out, for example, and has largely been forgotten.) But is that anything to be proud of?
When people wonder why the new technologies so rarely seem adequately to meet their human and social needs, they assume it is because of the greed and lust for power that motivate those who design and deploy them. Certainly, this has much to do with it. But it is not the whole of the story. On a deeper cultural level, these technologies have not met basic human needs because, at bottom, they have never really been about meeting them. They have been aimed rather at the loftier goal of transcending such mortal concerns altogether. In such an ideological context, inspired more by prophets than by profits, the needs neither of mortals nor of the earth they inhabit are of any enduring consequence. And it is here that the religion of technology can rightly be considered a menace [206-207].