Michael’s argument that we cannot always anticipate the effects of a particular technology is irrelevant here. These exponential trends in computation and communication technologies are greatly empowering the individual. Of course, that’s good news in many ways. These trends are behind the pervasive trend we see towards democratization, and are reshaping power relations at all levels of society. But these technologies are also empowering and amplifying our destructive impulses. It’s not necessary to anticipate all of the ultimate uses of a technology to see that there is danger in, for example, every college biotechnology lab having the ability to create self-replicating biological pathogens.
However, I do reject Joy’s call for relinquishment of broad areas of technology (such as nanotechnology) despite my not sharing Michael’s skepticism on the feasibility of these technologies. Technology has always been a double-edged sword. We don’t need to look any further than today’s technology to see this. If we imagine describing the dangers that exist today (enough nuclear explosive power to destroy all mammalian life, just for starters) to people who lived a couple of hundred years ago, they would think it mad to take such risks. On the other hand, how many people in the year 2001 would really want to go back to the short, brutish, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, disaster-prone lives that 99 percent of the human race struggled through a couple of centuries ago?
People often go through three stages in examining the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age-old problems, then a sense of dread at a new set of grave dangers that accompany these new technologies, followed, finally and hopefully, by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the promise while managing the peril.
The continued opportunity to alleviate human distress is one important motivation for continuing technological advancement. Also compelling are the already apparent economic gains, which will continue to hasten in the decades ahead. There is an insistent economic imperative to continue technological progress: relinquishing technological advancement would be economic suicide for individuals, companies and nations.
Which brings us to the issue of relinquishment, which is Bill Joy’s most controversial recommendation and personal commitment. Forgoing fields such as nanotechnology is untenable. Nanotechnology is simply the inevitable end result of a persistent trend toward miniaturization that pervades all of technology. It is far from a single centralized effort but is being pursued by a myriad of projects with many diverse goals.
Furthermore, abandonment of broad areas of technology will only push them underground, where development would continue unimpeded by ethics and regulation. In such a situation, it would be the less stable, less responsible practitioners (for example, the terrorists) who would have all the expertise.
The constructive response to these dangers is not a simple one: It combines professional ethical guidelines (which already exist in biotechnology and are currently being drafted by nanotechnologists), oversight by regulatory bodies and the development of technology-specific “immune” responses, as well as computer-assisted surveillance by law enforcement organizations. As we go forward, balancing our cherished rights of privacy with our need to be protected from the malicious use of powerful 21st-century technologies will be one of many profound challenges.
Technology will remain a double-edged sword, and the story of the 21st century has not yet been written. It represents vast power to be used for all humankind’s purposes. We have no choice but to work hard to apply these quickening technologies to advance our human values, despite what often appears to be a lack of consensus on what those values should be.