Monday, April 7, 2008

The Industrial Society and its Future

The opening words of the Unabomer manifesto are these:

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race."

In by moments of techno-pessimism, I wonder how true this is. There are a couple of things to consider when looking at the veracity of this statement, and most of them are nebulous and difficult to define. The three factors that I use are 1) freedom, 2) prosperity, and 3) humanity.

1) Freedom: Does technology make us more free? In a nutshell, this is the argument against: technology makes us more dependent on other people. A computer is not something that I can make on my own. Even when I can make things on my own, it's grossly inefficient to do so compared with what can be done by mass manufacturing. Additionally, technology is like an adaptation. The person who owns a cell phone is better able to communicate with the world than the person who doesn't own one. Technology also brings social pressure with it - the pressure to own a television, an iPod, a computer, and various other items whose purposes are mostly cultural. On top of that, technology shapes the societies it touches. Even if I don't drive a car, I have to obey pedestrian laws which are put in place to protect me from cars - laws which wouldn't exist if not for cars.

Counterargument: Though technology does come at the cost of ever-increasing reliance on "the system", reliance on the system is not incompatible with freedom. We need to give up certain freedoms to gain access to certain others. The freedoms that we gain far outweigh the freedoms which we lose. For example, I give up the right to walk freely in the streets in return for the right to travel quickly from one place to another via car. In the distant future, all children might be genetically engineered to be optimal - in that case, we would be giving up the freedom to have natural children in return for the right to have children who don't get sick, who don't grow old, etc. This might not be the best example, because some people might consider that horrific.

The other claim - that those who don't use technology are less adapted to the world, and thus are forced to change or be marginalized - is not actually a criticism of technology. It's a criticism of the free market economy. Since the free market economy is simply "survival of the fittest" applied to economic choices, the criticism is really about how the world works. It might be nice if the fittest didn't always have the upper hand, if things were equal between people so that one man could always evenly match another. It would lead to less violence, fewer wars, etc. We could all get along. But this is a world, a universe, of finite resources, and acquiring them is a struggle. To deny the struggle is to impose even more restrictions on the basic freedoms of men.

Points 2) and 3) to be addressed later.

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