journeying into the mind of a technophobe

Bill McKibben isn't worried that the Technological Singularity will never happen. He's worried it will usher in an era of fascist ubermensch who will destroy humanity as we know it.

giant robot in city
Illustration by Mark Zepeda

Around here, I often knock Singularitarians and transhumanists for being way too optimistic about the future and making an industry out of this unbound optimism. But there’s another extreme in today’s debates about how we should shape the world of tomorrow which wasn’t really covered. While tech evangelists rarely seem to see the problems and limitations in their proposals to employ new technologies to solve all the world’s ills, there are people who virtually never see anything but the negatives in applying cutting edge technology to any problem. Much like the anti-vaccination activists who hysterically fear modern medicine, technophobes are fixated on what could go wrong and allow their fears to utterly dominate how they view any development in AI, genetic engineering, and progress in bridging the gap between humans and machines. While we’re making a new wave of robots to help us travel into space and build cities, they’re awaiting a mechanical rebellion

For a good example of this attitude, take Bill McKibben. He wrote a rebuttal to Kurzweil’s musings on how the moment of the Singularity will come by the mid-2040s centered around the idea that transhumanists are on a mission to change what makes us human and how this will bring about the end of humanity. After giving most of his readers a scare taken from sensationalistic headlines in newspapers and popular science articles, he remembers to drop a caveat, saying that he just wants to be cautious that we don’t end up hurting our species by simply leaping into whatever new discovery in the world of AI or genetics. Of course this defense falls flat on its face when we note that he’s fighting with his fears and media hype of technologies which are really much more complex and are actually incapable of being used the way McKibben sees in his nightmares. While he’s afraid the genetic engineering will be used for eugenics, actual biology says that every eugenic experiment is going to end in failure simply due to the nature of how our genomes work.

There’s no intellect gene that will switch on and make a child a genius and there’s no strength gene that could give someone superhuman strength. Making a Nazi-eqsue master race of attractive, atheletic geniuses isn’t a scientific possibility and trying to make it happen will result in an inbred, highly vulnerable population. We can say the same about making a super-species of cyborgs. While there are very legitimate ethical and medical concerns in using mechanical parts in healthy humans, you won’t necessarily come up with a superhuman species due to our bodies’ physical limitations. Cyborgs who could be appreciably faster and stronger than a normal, average human would need to be almost entirely machine, and even then, their joints would wear out far faster than ours because we can repair the damage from everyday stress while machinery can’t. McKibben essentially composed a sermon on the morality of what amounts to comic book science applied to the world as we know it. He might as well have written an essay about the need to secure our closets against whatever boogeyman invades it. It would’ve been equally factual and accurate.

Unfortunately, the fears of nonexistent of impossible technological horrors is rampant on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Many liberals are afraid of anything that tinkers with nature because they see themselves as custodians of the environment. Many conservatives rebel against major advancements in genetics and certain technologies due to their religious beliefs, viewing any attempt to actually alter genes or change the human species’ status quo as going against God’s plans. Both of these attitudes aren’t helpful to society at large, not only because they’re often based on ignorance of the relevant subjects, but due to the very harmful effect they have on scientific and engineering R&D. When people become more concerned about the feeling they get when they read an overhyped, ridiculously poorly researched story with headlines breathlessly describing how a mad scientist cloned a sheep to practice creating human clones for organ harvesting in the near future, than the actual facts involved in things like cloning or genetic engineering, they cut R&D budgets, kill scientific jobs and derail promising lines of research out of irrational paranoia. And writers who can’t tell a pseudoscientific world salad from a real scientific paper are only fueling these waves of Luddism…

# tech // future / futurism / luddism

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