Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The “Anti-Progress” Slur

Adam already noted my brief response to a charge frequently made against “bioconservatives”: that we are against progress and for suffering. I’d like to say a little more in the hope of putting this tired rhetorical trope to rest. So let me just list, in no particular order and without any effort to be comprehensive or predictive, a dozen areas in which I personally think science and technology are contributing to genuine incremental improvements in the material conditions of human life — i.e., progress:

1. Agriculture: decreased/more focused inputs, increased crop yields, quality, diversity, and reliability
2. Water: increased quality of water supply and more reliable and efficient distribution
3. Energy: more efficient energy production, transport and consumption, greater diversity of energy supplies
4. Transportation: increased speed and safety, greater energy efficiency
5. Food supply: improved quality and diversity along with increased safety and storage time
6. Space travel: reduced cost of routine manned space operations, increased capacity in exploratory efforts
7. Construction: more durable materials, increased simplicity and speed of commercial, residential and infrastructure construction
8. Military: increased ability to detect explosives and weapons of mass destruction, and to preempt their use or contain their consequences; increased reliability and precision of munitions
9. Medicine: increased safety, scope and availability of vaccination; less invasive and more precise surgery; personalized and/or narrowly targeted medical treatments; simplified diagnostics and treatments; better prosthetic devices for physical and neurological disabilities (and yes, I know about the thin line between therapy and enhancement, but we'll deal with that another time).
10. Nature: improved ability to predict extreme weather and geological events
11. Waste: treating waste products as resources
12. Communication: continued increases in speed, bandwidth and information connectivity

I’m not trying to be controversial or surprising here, nor to suggest that transhumanists are against any of these developments. But I am pointing out that progress is not the same as “the latest thing” or the most outré imaginings. Progress is not about being at the bleeding edge for its own sake, or having an idea that only a few people believe in, or being attracted to what is strange and unique. Let’s try not to confuse being for some less-than-controversial kinds of progress with being against progress simply. Any and all change is not progress, and somebody’s claim that a given change is “progress” should be taken as an invitation to critical thinking about what would make human life better — and not as the last word.

2 comments:

  1. This post overall is a good idea and hard to disagree with, but if you'll permit me a quibble:

    Michael Pollan has strongly given me the impression that agribusiness in the past few decades has, in its successful efforts to multiply supply while cutting cost per unit, dramatically decreased the diversity of crops. (As for quality, I understand that the science is still undecided there - but personal experience makes me think the answer's obvious!)

    If you were referring to progress being made now to address these issues, rather than the development over the past few decades, please give more detail! I'm quite interested.

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  2. Dear Mr. Boyd -

    I suspect that you are referring to decreasing crop diversity (although that is not a settled question) and that Professor Rubin is referring to the increasing diversity of foodstuffs available and affordable on the market -- including in the developing world.

    ATK

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