I’m not big on utopias, and I think one thing that any candid appraisal of technology would have to acknowledge is that every new technology is creating nearly as many problems as it is solving. And most of the problems in our lives today are technogenic, they’ve been generated by previous technologies. It suggests very clearly that most of the problems in the future will be technogenic, created by technologies that we’ve made today. For that reason alone, it’s not utopia, and where we’re headed is not a place where there are no problems or technology solves, mends everything so that we kind of live in this state of bliss. Or, it’s not even to suggest that there’s some endpoint in evolution, or some Omega Point where we’re all headed and everything is fixed and works perfectly, or it’s, in some ways, culminated in perfection. First of all, there is no endpoint in evolution–in fact the point of it is that there is no endpoint, that it’s an open-ended process of continual flux and change and more importantly that the nature of the change itself is changing. So in that way there’s no utopia, but also part of that internal flux is the fact that problems are constantly being invented as well as solutions.
However, saying that I do think there’s a moral dimension to technology and that comes in the fact that while it’s true that newly affected technology will create as many, rarely as many problems as solutions, it’s not neutral. I wouldn’t say that life is neutral although obviously life cannot go on without death. Death is sort of part of those two cycles. But even though for every animal that’s born there’s an animal that dies, we don’t think of life as neutral. No, we say life is good. Overall, the net effect of life is good.
More life is better, even though everything born dies, and so you say “Why isn’t that neutral?” That’s because the same thing happens in technology, when something is invented–let’s say you have a hammer. You could use that hammer to kill someone or you could use it to build something, and there is a sense that that’s just neutral. They’re just tools. You can use them for harm or good.
But in fact, the invention of that hammer actually introduces a brand new choice that we’ve never had before, and that choice, I think, tips the balance. That new choice that did not exist before, tips the balance slightly in favor of the good because there is a new choice for good or harm that had never existed before. That new choice itself is good. Even if we choose the harm in it, we have a choice we did not have before.
So, I think, it turns out that you don’t need very much more good over time to get progress. That if you use technology to create 1% more than you destroy a year, that 1% compounded over time is what we call progress.
See also: What Does Technology Want? (Radiolab, Nov. 16, 2010)