technological progression, social regression
A repost from my personal blog, I feel it is a pertinent highlight here. Some of you might have read this already.
As technology progresses, what happens to the state of human society? Aldous Huxley is quoted, "Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards."
This sort of oxymoronic critique of history is not confined to Huxley, and has been quite prevalent in the writings of the prominent thinkers throughout history itself. There is an ancient Greek theory that history is circular, going through stages of anarchy, democracy, republic, dictatorship, oligarchy and back to anarchy again. Huxley wrote Brave New World, a book which describes a setting where technology has been utilised to the utmost for the advancement of public happiness. Everyone is entertained through audio-visual-"feelie" media feeds, all sadness has been suppressed – such as by using a drug (without side effects – nothing but pleasure) called soma. Yet, such a society is remarkably horrific: to achieve this sort of happiness, most of the population has been intentionally mentally retarded from birth, and technology is used to program individuals through subliminal messaging. Technology has made live births unnecessary – everyone is grown in test tubes.
The characteristic of technology that allows this oxymoron is that it is a double-edged sword, a tool that can be used to shape society in a certain direction. In the situation of Brave New World, society advances in terms of scientific knowledge; in terms of moral and ethical progress, society regresses. Even as scientific knowledge progresses, it can cause its own decline: the scientific knowledge of the masses eventually is eliminated because the masses have been retarded through science. Happiness is granted to all: but it is arguably false happiness – one is only happy because they have been stupefied to such a degree. Even the upper castes are ignorant of Othello and heart-wrenching poetry.
Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four describes a dystopian society where the idea of regression is less overt. Technology is used to control society with Thought Police with use of electric shocks and use of rubber truncheons. Rarely do firearms ever need to be used, and the only skyscrapers are the monolithic government agency buildings. 1984 describes many historical oxymora: technology advances to ultimately make further technological progress unnecessary. The technology of warfare is created only to destroy. The huge workforce and advanced technology has huge industrial and manufacturing potential, and must be utilised for something, and it is. It is used to create things that destroy, things to be destroyed: ammunition to be spent in warfare, floating fortresses to be eventually decommissioned, tanks that get blown up. Everything is put for the use of destruction, some of the resources diverted to keep the lower classes at the brink of starvation, but nothing else more. Technology is utilised in such a way that the lower classes are still deprived of resources that would otherwise give them intellectual growth, and thus the ability to rebel. Technology progresses in terms of death and weaponry: but there is no augmentation of constructive resources, hence there is no intellectual advancement, hence the masses never rebel.
Orwell describes how the final Revolution occurred – the pendulum would swing "once again", then stop forever, the High would stay the High, the Middle the Middle, the Low forever at the Low, and maybe some interchanging between the upper two. The original factors that brought about the change would ultimately be destroyed because of the change they brought upon themselves – the purges in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, as well as the purges seen in the various Leninist revolutionary cadres of the 20th century, such as the Soviets of Russia and the GongChanDang of the PRC. This is one depiction of a regressing history.
However, I do not agree with Huxley that technology has "merely provided us" with a more efficient means of going backwards. Huxley was rather suspicious of many new technologies; he was not a primitivist per se, but he was disillusioned with the trappings of modern society.
Technological progress is inevitable – one cannot ask that it be stopped for the greater mutual good, not even with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, technology has to create antidotes against the weapons it creates, as mutually assured destruction is not an effective deterrent in the decentralised warfare of today – where it is not states that wage war, but individuals, covert cells, and militias. In order to safeguard ourselves, we must only technologically advance more – can we already not detect elements at a distance, spot specific chemicals with the pass of a machine?
With greater detection technology then, calls problems of privacy and freedom from warrantless search. Technology must then advance in that direction – consider the military grade encryption now available to the common citizen because of the advancements that open-source and free software (free as in freedom) has made. It is a constant up-the-ante struggle.
Yet it is because of this struggle that a sense of constancy seems to arise, if not regression. By technologically advancing in all areas, or technologically advancing all factions, everyone is on an equal footing as before. The military situation still has not really changed: a state might have more technologically advanced forces it is still the monolithic empire awaiting a guerilla; a guerilla force that has updated its technology too, using improvised-explosive-devices instead of dynamite. The only difference is that the stakes are now higher, that where the reaction time used to be a few seconds for a soldier on the battlefield with swords and arrows, the reaction time now demands split-second throwback of grenades.
This is a theme that for me seemed quite evident whenever I played a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. After hours of playing, the meaninglessness of the entire affair of researching technologies to advance one’s society became quite evident to me. Perhaps it was just exhaustion, but a rather cynical philosophical implication of technological progress became more obvious: it is all the same, as technology progresses. To what end does the technology achieve? One upgrades one’s military, but the enemy does the same for his too, with military advantage the same as before – essentially as meaningful as if we had never upgraded our technology at all.
Yet despite this realistion however, there remains a desire for the edge: we cannot tell our enemies, "we might as well not use this technology, because we would still be both at the same footing if we both use it" (whether it be nuclear weapons or otherwise), we cannot trust our enemies not to advance technologically, we cannot trust the corporate mogul not to find unethical uses for technology, we ourselves must be involved in technology itself in order to fight those who would use technology for bad ends against us. Hence this is why we should not stop technological progress merely because of Huxley’s cynicism.
The problem ultimately is with the use of technology. With modern society comes consumerism, and a rampant free market, which confusingly, is not quite so free. As we invented farming (Neolithic Revolution), cities (Urban Revolution) and industry (Industrial Revolution), and digital processing (Information Revolution) we required the quick invention of new concepts, in this case, a stronger concept of property, whether it be in industry or copyright. However, despite being technological progresses, often they may be seen as regressions because they are not technologically progressed enough.
For example, current intellectual property law is up-to-date to accommodate the use of file-sharing networks, but it is not up-to-date to accommodate the use of file-sharing networks *and* user rights *and* the freedom of information at the same time. Today’s global economy is highly advanced, but still has a long way to go. It is capable of mass producing billions of computers, propagating information along its highways faster than before, and even solving world hunger. Yet it is not able to deploy food where it is needed. It is still primitive in terms of finding advanced ethical and political concepts to fit the technology: it cannot yet compensate for the effects externalities while maintaining individual rights to one's property and labours; it cannot yet balance the ability to use one’s resources as they wish (private property), while maintaining the liberty from plutocratic repression.This is the field of knowledge we need to progress in.