Here's to a good time, a good life, and a good death.
So I have been recently discussing some of my opinions on religion. I want to consider another question and a corresponding reflection.
Is technological progress equivalent to human progress?
This particular question is very contentious among scholarly circles. Philosophers love to debate this topic. Accordingly, the subject carries with it many assumptions. Westerners tend to sympathize with the premise of the question (that the answer is yes) and Easterners tend to disagree. Of course, there can be exceptions on both sides.
In answering this question, I am speaking to the question in the form of a generality, not in specifics. Otherwise, the answer would naturally be like any other answer to such an ambiguous question, “it depends…”
First of all, technology is best viewed as “some sort of improved means towards accomplishing a given goal.” For example, the wheel allowed for a more efficient transportation of people and goods. The printing press allowed for the more efficient creation of books rather than copying by hand.
In order to understand progress, one must determine the goal at hand. One must understand that progress is a direction towards an objective.
I want to first clarify that all human action is inexplicably interconnected with “progress.” Basically, one cannot isolate a human’s action apart from some sort of an intended goal, purpose, or intended outcome. At the most fundamental level of human action, we have the goal of survival. Thus, any actions taken, like breathing, are for the inherent goal of living. For instance, you don’t see average people regularly trying to kill themselves.
So, when people say that technology is progress, they are saying that technology is helping humanity approach its goal. So, then, what is the goal of humanity? That becomes the key question to answering this larger question.
I contend that the goal of humanity is to approach “information optimization.” When I say that, I mean the complete and better utilization of all information in the universe. This is based on the reasoning that the purpose of humanity is to better understand ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Likewise, the greatest constraint that humanity faces in achieving its goals of longevity, poverty, and higher standards of living all center around different information scarcities in various forms. This is not a novel position for me to take, given that I am an economist. The nature of my discipline is to study the different flows of information as well as human organization. For example, as an economist, prices are a fundamental part of the discipline. And in an open economy, prices function to communicate complex information about the scarcity between relative goods.
Now, why do I say “information optimization”? Well, as information improves, the ability to for individuals to meet the needs/wants of others improves. Essentially, in the proper context, open markets develop and expand, allowing people to help other people by exchange. Of course, markets cannot develop if participants did not share the proper information to exchange. For example, a seller needs to know the preferences of the buyer in order to create a product that the buyer will desire. Further, they need to know the right quantity to produce, the right type of product, the right time to produce the product, how many employees to produce the product, how to assemble the product, and so on and so forth. The questions could go on almost seemingly infinitely…
So, why is “information optimization” the goal of humanity? Well, in a broad sense, because it allows for humans to better discover the meaning of life. Humans share a propensity to question and the question of “what is the meaning of life?” likely ranks as one of the most fundamental “big” questions that remain tough to answer. But think about it using the framework of PSIC. If morality adheres to the PSIC framework, then any discovery that allows humans to interact more freely or openly would promote progress. Specifically, progress towards better understanding positive, meaningful, and reciprocal relationships.
Of course, this whole argument assumes that by satisfying people’s needs, people become happier, or at least have the potential to become happier. This idea can be heavily argued against.
Critics of these ideas would point out that technology will often (A damage the environment of which is sacred, or B) damage the relationships of people or C) distract humans from the meaning of life found in harmony, interconnectedness, and tranquility. Some advocate reason A because they view the environment as either sacred or more important than humans. Some advocate reason B because human nature is inherently bent towards self-interest, and technology encourages humans to pursue this disposition at the expense of relationships. Some advocate reason C because they think that individual happiness or satisfaction is found in the unconventional means of “letting oneself go.” Basically, this is the denial of desire or selfish will. In a sense, this is a very Eastern concept. I am not going to argue against point C on the basis that any rebuttal that would be worth mentioning would take far too long to sufficiently draw out.
I would argue that these positions are difficult to defend. For advocates of reason A, I would attack the entire premise that the environment is more important than humanity. Firstly, if the environment is more important then humanity, what can humans do to the environment that is okay? What are the permitted modifications that humans can do to their environments? Does this mean that humans are inherently a “bad” thing since humans must interact with the environment by nature (i.e. breathing oxygen, eating food, drinking water). Some scholars will develop this argument to answer some of these questions, usually along the principles of sustainability, protection of biodiversity, and similar points. If so, then it becomes a debate of whether or not the technology sufficiently impacts the environment to warrant a “good” or a “bad” judgment. An ironic counterpoint to this would be that later technology can reduce the environmental impact of previous technology. For instance, vehicles in the 20th century, on average, had/have lower gas mileage than vehicles in the 21st century.
For advocates of reason B, I am far more sympathetic towards. However, I would contend that human nature is the problem, not the technology. Technology ought to be viewed as an improved means of performing some action, rather than the motivation for said action. Conservatives often use this sort of reasoning in the controversial “gun rights” debate. Now, this idea can be debated though. For instance, in a cost-benefit framework, technology can be understood as lowering the costs of doing certain actions, in which, those actions could be malicious or harmful. Specifically, one could look at the subject of the internet as a technology that is responsible for both helping and hurting relationships. A proponent of technology would argue that the Internet has helped people record and share more experiences through social media and other web applications. An opponent of technology would argue that the Internet has removed people away from face-to-face interaction and subsequently made individuals less able to relate interpersonally.
My way of answering these sorts of dilemmas is in consideration that technology requires responsibility. And, in many cases, legal approaches are taken to clarifying “responsibility.” Take nuclear warfare as a macro example. Nuclear technology has been around for several decades now, yet, only two bombs have ever been utilized in a war. That’s the infamous event of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, I am not going to debate the morality of those decisions, but I would like to point out that so far, humans have refrained from using nuclear technology in war due to its undesirable consequences. I would say that the same phenomenon can apply to other technologies, such as cellular phones, on a much more micro scale. For instance, texting during a conversation or a social meal can be looked down upon. Texting while driving is illegal in many municipalities.
So, is technology a demonstration of human progress? It allows humans to extend lifespans through medical treatments, immunizations, and better health practices. It allows humans to interact with each other regardless of distance. It allows humans to search new information at the easiest conveniences. It interconnects the global economy, presenting significant barriers to triggering wars. It raises general standards of life through cleaner food, water, and environments. It enables humans to build stable, more durable buildings. It allows humans to travel further distances in faster times. It increases the diversity of vocations available to individuals. In all honesty, the list can go on much longer and in much greater detail.
The point is that technology helps us to discover pieces of the answers to the “big” questions of life. The closer that humanity gets towards answering these questions, the better off humanity is.
Now, here’s an interesting reflection on technology. As technology grows, so does the relative ignorance of individuals. Technology is created by specialization in a particular subject. Specialized knowledge increases the amount of information available in the world. In essence, the more there is to know about a given topic, the less that most people will know.
Now, as I realize that I know less and less, I slowly become more and more convinced that I ought to be quite humble. But furthermore, I begin to realize that the evidence for a greater intelligence or sort of “God” becomes stronger. I find that the greater the complexity of the world, the greater the probability that some sort of being had to design it. I find it increasingly difficult to make the case that somehow “chance”, guided through natural selection, formed the world that humanity knows today.