How Much Might Do We Give Technology?

New methods of DNA manipulation urgently prompt us to take a stand


Most published articles regarding new methods of genetic manipulation (e.g., CRISPR/CAS9) mirror the prevalent laissez-faire attitude towards technological development: potential benefits of a technological innovation are emphasized and lauded, while potential down-sides and concerns get cursory attention. Envisioning the great advantages to be gained through these new powers is clearly more attractive. With the first steps towards a new technology a kind of cultural knee-jerk reaction sets in and a more or less linear path is imagined by which that technology must be improved and applied. Human values and our ability to consider essential tradeoffs do not play a part in these visions.

Protecting the human experience from technology's dynamics
If we, time and again, make ourselves see the power and logic of technological development as given – like a natural law – then that power and logic gains more weight, becomes something insurmountable in our eyes, and our views become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By accepting the insurmountability of technology's current dynamics, we give ourselves a comfortable pretense to surrender to those dynamics before we face up to what has become humanity's biggest challenge.

The epochal challenge is this: to protect the human experience from technology's thunderous dynamics. This securing can only be achieved if we find a way to restrain the potentially all-encompassing forces of technological development by defining additional criteria for its evolution. For now the most important criteria are those of technology's own inherent developmental logic – e.g., from the knowledge/ability of A and B follows the knowledge/ability of C – and whether there are interests, skills, and finances to follow that logic through. If we do not want this development to become all-engulfing it will need cultural moderation and selection, which currently barely exist.

Why should we face this epochal challenge and what can be gained? These questions are connected to a more fundamental one: should human existence be more than a dull, breathless adaptation to the faster changing realities of technological evolution? If we see cultural diversity and freedom (of choice) as valuable aspects of human existence – aspects we want to protect for ourselves and future generations – then we must make sure that the growing influence of technological realities does not become omnipresent and all-dominant.

Unchecked and undisciplined technological development – which orients itself mainly towards that which is feasible, useable, and financeable – makes cultural views and values bit by bit obsolete as science and technology are only bound by the objective rules of physics and chemistry. A sense for the dignity and wonder of life, empathy, art, religious and spiritual perceptions, inner calm, privacy, social interaction, ceremony, modesty, sense of purpose, fairness, etc. have no inherent worth for technology's evolution. Knowledge of physics and chemistry and the improving application of that knowledge advances technology. Our human values and views per se do not contribute to technology's advancement and are therefore in principle irrelevant for this kind of evolution. We humans must see to it that our views and values become an integral part of technology's evolution, so that this development does them justice.

Goals influence outcome
Broad and conscientious discussion regarding for instance the ethical, social, cultural, and religious/spiritual implications of humans directly manipulating DNA should have taken place well before 1980 when General Electric was the first company to be granted a patent on a genetically manipulated life form. However, discussions were mostly conducted in the small, dedicated circles of those directly involved (e.g., the courts, company management, and investors). And so the development of DNA manipulation took its expected course: the granting of patents for aspects of biological life (i.e., their privatization) enabled the creation of new markets, which quickly attracted more and more investors and thus created the biotech industry.

The biotech industry – as any other one as well – must be able to generate returns on its investments. By evoking this industry and thus the dynamics related to the profit motive, both generation and application of biotechnological knowledge were significantly accelerated. This acceleration influences negative effects. The probability of negative effects – inherent in technology use – is much greater when highly sensitive aspects of technological development are subjected to the hasty and short-sighted rhythms and goals of profit and power.[1]

DNA manipulation is a paradigm shift requiring other great changes
Up until now it has more or less been the case, that a technology is used if it results in a benefit. And it has also more or less been the case, that the negative effects of technology use are addressed only when there's no way around them (e.g., regarding environmental pollution, population growth, or regarding arms control). But our ability to directly manipulate DNA molecules is a paradigm shift which needs to be embedded in corresponding changes of societal decision making. To deal with negative effects only once they appear has proven for quite some time to be an insufficient approach. Since we can directly manipulate an organism's genetic make-up (and the make-up of matter in general) this old approach is completely outdated: the potential negative effects of our newest technological means are far too consequential to continue with our current ways.

What we need is time. For a start, we need time to define new societal decision-making processes and create institutions, which can serve as a real counterpart to the paradigm shift that DNA manipulation is (of course this isn't just about DNA manipulation but concerns the creation of new technological means in general, e.g. artificial intelligence). Then, via these new institutions and decision-making processes, we need time to slow and selectively conduct our further technological progression. As paradoxical as it may sound: only through self-discipline can we secure our human measure of freedom of action, which is gradually being reduced by the inherent logic of technology's evolution.

Yet contrary to the promises of ceaseless technological innovation, time is an "asset" we are increasingly losing out on. The less time we take to guide technological development according to our human ways, the more this development will follow its own rules, speeds, and rhythms and thus marginalize human views, values, and needs – until they become completely irrelevant. Technology's progression will not give us this crucial time. We must take it ourselves.

The current degree of scientific and entrepreneurial freedom needs to be questioned
To gain the necessary time to define and execute new societal decision-making processes and to build and run new institutions 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 talk about scientific and entrepreneurial freedom. Scientific and entrepreneurial freedom are very 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.

Whether or not we want to take this great effort upon us to stem the continuous assimilation of non-technological, human realities into the stream of technological developments – by countering it with something subjective, something cultural – should depend on how highly we value a diverse and free human experience. If we don't do anything, or continue to indulge in cosmetic measures, then the human-biological – from which for instance our social, spiritual, artistic, moral, or emotional aspects are derived – will increasingly be diluted and displaced by the realities of technology's evolution.


[1] Here are a few examples of negative effects regarding genetically modified plants (many of which also pertain to humans and animals):
- Ethical implications: Manipulating and privatizing life raises fundamental ethical questions, which we still find difficult to formulate, let alone answer. Not giving ourselves time to address these questions and pressing forward without answers undermines the role of ethics and values in human life.
- Economic and political power concentrations: The privatization of life in general and in particular letting ownership of food plants and animals rest in the hands of small, withdrawn minorities raises huge concerns over undue power and control.
- Reduction of variety: The economic interest of agribusiness in its own patented plants and animals is leading to a reduction of variety. Vertical market integrations help displace the non-patented, non-manipulated varieties of seeds and animals. Because big business interests have far less legal and economic leverage over the non-manipulated varieties, they are no longer made available to farmers. Lack of genetic variety poses a lump risk to society as alternative food plants and animals—e.g., in the case of parasites infestation—are not easily or not at all available.
- Cross-pollination: Contamination of non-genetically modified plants with the pollen of genetically modified ones endangers the existence of natural varieties.
- Toxicity: Toxins from within a genetically modified plant or stemming from increased herbicide and pesticide use for GMOs, may pose various health risks. The use of herbicides and pesticides further lowers soil and water quality as these toxins seep into the environment.
- Resistances: Because of increased exposure to toxins, the targeted plants and insects are adapting and developing resistances, requiring more and increasingly toxic substances to control them.