The Power Of Choice

Our technological development is not predetermined

 

In the night from the 26st to the 27th of September 1983 sirens wailed and the word <alarm> glared in Cyrillic letters in the command center of the Soviet satellite surveillance. A spy satellite had detected light flashes over the USA and relayed: start of a Minuteman-rocket; heading towards the Soviet Union. The 44-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislaw Petrow decided based on various considerations not to notify the Soviet leadership. A bit later it was discovered that the satellite had interpreted reflections of the sun as the start of nuclear missiles. Most probably Petrow single-handedly prevented a nuclear war. He has been honored with various awards.[1]

Even in most difficult circumstances humans have a choice
Petrow’s conduct was exemplary and shows that we can exercise our ability to make choices even in situations that may seem predetermined. Yet regarding technological development – the key area of human endeavor in our times – it is regularly implied, that we have no choice other than to follow the inherent dynamics of technology’s evolution and consume its products. This of course is not true. We humans have choices. Swiss novelist Max Frisch even remarked, that the dignity of humans lies in free choice.

The view, that technological development is something predetermined and inevitable is our biggest enemy. If we cannot contrast this subjective view with a different perspective it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only then will humanity – not the technological development – have casted itself aside.

Moderation and selection
By seeing technology's evolution as something fixed, we give ourselves a comfortable pretense to surrender to this development before we face up to what has become humanity's biggest challenge: to protect the human experience from technology's thunderous dynamics. If we do not want this development to become all-engulfing it will need cultural moderation and selection, which currently barely exist.

To gain the necessary time to moderate and select we must slow technological development down: at the stage of knowledge generation and particularly at the stage of applying that knowledge towards new technologies. Because of this much needed deceleration we must start talking about scientific and entrepreneurial freedom. Scientific and entrepreneurial freedom are important values, but they may not be sacrosanct. What is at stake is far greater than the personal aspirations of scientists and entrepreneurs – far more even than the personal and societal advantages derived from those aspirations. The significance of what needs to be protected goes well beyond our individual lives and our present age: it concerns the human experience as such.

Developing technology without undermining the human experience
Of course we cannot perfectly implement cultural moderation and selection for technology's evolution. This, however, is not an argument against moderating and selecting our technological progression. In spite of speed limits there are those that speed, in spite of laws against theft and rape there are thieves and rapists, in spite of laws that protect natural environments and endangered species there is pollution and extinction. The question is, how much worse a respective situation would be if we did not transform cultural insights and values into corresponding societal efforts and laws, and supervise their adherence.

In some readers thoughts may have emerged which doubt whether it is even possible to significantly decrease both freedom of research and entrepreneurial freedom. Considering the great importance these freedoms have in our current economic-political system, such doubts are understandable. But the moral necessity and the societal advantages of e.g., separation of church and state, the abolishment of slavery, or the introduction of women's voting rights were also fundamental reformations which only came about by questioning established "truths".

We are biological and technological beings – have always been both: in the interplay between biology and technology our history has unfolded. This bipolarity defines our species. Since industrialization though the technological aspect of our existence is gaining ever more weight. If we want to stay human we must give the "biological" – i.e., the non-technological aspects of our being – at least as much time, energy, attention, and other (societal) resources as we grant the technological. This isn't about stopping technological development – that would be absurd. It is about developing technology in ways and speeds which don't – quite literally – dissolve the human experience in technology.

Through choice we gain dignity and through dignity we can gain the power to face this challenge.

 

[1] Sources: Swiss daily <Neue Züricher Zeitung> (September 25th, 2013) and Wikipedia