Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Saving technology from ourselves

One gorgeous Sunday afternoon while meandering around Kensington market after a hearty lunch of beef noodles at Swatow’s, we found ourselves standing in front of a corner store selling newly-arrived arts and crafts from Latin America. Beside it was a closed booth but the signs inside were obvious to the onlooker. Looking through the dust-covered glass wall of the store, one of the signs read, “Don’t use the computer,” and another bore the inscription, “Don’t patronize GMOs.” Inside was pit dark but the signs were luminous enough to read. There was also a printed page that referred to the Luddites, instantly betraying what the place really was, a not-so-surprising sanctuary for the anti-technologists on the street where vintage clothing and other personal paraphernalia are sold.

The Luddites, of course, alluded to the British textile workers who revolted against the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in the early eighteenth century by destroying mechanized looms. New wide-framed automated looms were being introduced during that time, causing the loss of jobs for many skilled workers since the new machines could be operated by cheap and relatively unskilled labour. The Luddites responded to the change by machine-breaking which was later made a capital crime.

Henceforth, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone who opposes the advance of technology because of the cultural and socio-economic changes associated with it.

Technology has bred two diametrical opposites. One side stands for the argument that technology is enslaving and subjugating humanity, while the other maintains that technology is being used, under the pretext of progress, to subjugate everyone else.

Take the case of the Internet. Does it bring us closer as one global village, or are we prisoners of technology? The horrible images of the Iraqi invasion, for example, were displayed on our television sets or computer screens in real time, i.e., the events at the exact moment in time. We have become virtual participants in a deadly war.

On the other hand, on Tuesday, March 24, 2009, President Barack Obama of the United States, in an effort to rally the world behind the U.S. economic recovery plan, released for publication an op-ed to more than 30 major newspapers around the world, from Al Watan of the Gulf States to Yomiuri Shimbun of Japan. Not to mention that Obama’s appeal is already spread through all computer networks worldwide, available for everyone to read in just a matter of nanoseconds, from the grade-school child to the senior citizen in a convalescent home. At nighttime, Obama bumped off prime TV shows because he was speaking to the nation through all the major channels.

Only a few months ago, President Obama’s cordon sanitaire was debating the idea that their employer give up the use of his Blackberry for security reasons. Imagine Obama using Twitter in his cell phone to catch up with what’s happening not just around his close circle of confidantes and advisers, but perhaps around the world as well.

To the neo-Luddites, if it’s new they hate it. At first, it was biotechnology they feared and loathed. Now they have trained their sights on nanotechnology. They’re horrified to hear about the possibility of moving genes between species. The number of nanotech patents every year scares their wits to no end.

According to Jerry Mander, the famed author of the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, with the Internet, biotechnology and nanotechnology have the potential to “redesign nature from the atomic level up.”

“With these technologies, nothing will be outside of corporate control. They will achieve the full realization of a bionic society,” Mander says.

Chet Bowers, a professor in Environmental Studies Department at the University of Oregon, fears that “computers are a colonizing technology.” Bowers warned that “computers profoundly alter how we think and inevitably reduce our ability to understand nature and cultures other than their own,” echoing Hans Moravec’s vision of the future in which people could download their consciousness into computers. Moravec, known for his work on robotics and artificial intelligence, predicted in his book Mind Children that robots will evolve into a new series of artificial species, starting around 2030-2040.

Technology will always be a significant item in the political agenda of nations. Both as a core element of the knowledge base of a country and as a factor in creating employment in production and research, technology no doubt is a powerful economic engine. But it’s not totally immune to society’s derision. It could be a cause for pollution, or unemployment when used to automate and rationalize production. It also creates controversies such as waste management, power stations, railway tracks and airport extensions, or genetically-engineered organisms, that engage clashes between public groups, governmental agencies and politicians, and their debates and opinions reverberate loudly throughout society. Take, for example, the debate on human reproductive cloning, which raises ethical concerns about manipulating genes that can be passed to our children. Do we have accountable and effective regulation of all human genetic technologies?

In 1969, Stephanie Mills, renowned ecology writer and activist, became famous when she announced as valedictorian of her class at Mills College in 1969 that the world was in such a bad shape that she would not have children. Mills was concerned about overpopulation and its effects on the environment and demanded that society adopt a “precautionary principle,” the notion that before any new development in science and technology can be used, it must be shown to have no negative impact.

We cannot dismiss either by sheer ignorance or stubborn resistance to change that the human race has in fact progressed a lot over the past one hundred years. Consider the longer life expectancies, higher standards of living, and cleaner environments. Naturally, we have to consider all of these with both eyes open, that despite all the progress we have achieved so far, there is still widespread hunger, ignorance, poverty and inequality among us.

To Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, progress around his wilderness home in Montana provoked his brilliant mind to start a bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring more than 23. In his manifesto published by the New York Times, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future, Kazcynski argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom brought about by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization.

Kazcynski concluded that more violent methods were the only solution to the problems of industrial civilization, that violence was the only way to bring down the techno-industrial system.

Interestingly, Kazcynski’s manifesto, which was produced on a manual typewriter without the benefit of a word processor or spell-checker, was virtually free of any spelling or grammatical lapses, according to writer Henry Holt. How many of us today, using a computer, would be able to construct a 35,000-word manifesto without any single grammatical or spelling error? But thanks to the modern computer, that is now possible.

Kazcynski today is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In prison, he remembers the mountains and the woods and all the wild nature that surround his cabin in Montana. He said he was afraid he might lose those memories, but he doesn’t think they’re going to break his spirit.

There is no denying that the effective use of technology is essential in contemporary politics and U.S. President Obama is utilizing it to the hilt by deploying new communications media in fostering democratic debate and shaping the future of contemporary societies and culture. Obama is invigorating democracy by increasing the dissemination of critical and progressive ideas in what we may call cyberspace democracy. The downside, however, is overexposure and possible audience fatigue if Obama’s appearances on radio and television, on the Internet, Facebook or even Twitter, become like a boring mini-series. Too much exposure may also boomerang on Mr. Obama if the desired results of his communications blitz are not achieved.

Barack Obama may be perceived by the neo-Luddites as a witting tool of technology. Excessive reliance on computer technology to communicate his ideas and objectives for the nation may enhance the people’s synthetic intimacy with him, but in the end, everybody wants their president to touch their hearts and minds not through some sort of artificial medium.

The debate on the uses and abuses of technology will continue to persist as long as man continues to advance and conquer new horizons in the future. Progress is both intoxicating and addictive.

Human reproductive cloning is currently taboo and there could be a strict global moratorium on the release of GMOs into the environment. Nuclear arms might be totally frozen, although that’s wishful thinking. But advances in biotechnology can never be reversed and creation of nano-assemblers will continue until they could manufacture anything.

To heed the words of Stephanie Mills, "progress through innovation and technology must seriously address the relationship between individual choices and the fate of our species and others with which we share this earth."

Any blanket justification for the sake of progress is inadequate to cover all human concerns. In the Philippines, for example, the Bonifacio Monument, a testament to the country’s revolutionary leader who led Asia’s first national uprising against a European colonial power, is in danger of being desecrated to give way to modern transportation. The monument faces the risk of being imprisoned by the light rail ring of concrete and steel that is steadily going around it. Giant billboards around the monument have already diminished its stature and importance.

Hearing someone justify the vandalization of Bonifacio’s Monument in the name of progress would wake up the Luddites in each one of us and make us squirm and revolt. All that is needed is to redesign or reroute the loop of the light rail transit in order to preserve the integrity of the monument and its enduring symbol of our nation’s resistance against foreign invaders.

Where is technology when you need it to preserve an important relic of our history?

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