Why The Future Needs Us: Ray Kurzweil, The Unabomber, and The Impatience of Progress

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Technological progress hangs over mankind like the Sword of Damocles. And most of us never look up.


‘They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
That all he could do was wreck
and destroy, and
He turned to his workmates
and said: Death to Machines
They tread on our future and
they stamp on our dreams.’

(Robert Calvert, ‘Nedd Ludd’)

In a sleepy English factory town in 1779, as the Industrial Revolution was just revving up, the dim-witted workman Ned Ludd, after being taunted for incompetence by local hooligans, smashed two mechanical knitting machines to smithereens in a fit of rage that elevated him to near-mythical status. Somehow, tales of this seemingly-innocuous event went viral, and the enemies of technology transformed the dumb workman from Anstey into an icon of technological resistance.

Fast forward two centuries.  The year: 1993.  Well-known Yale computer science professor David Gelernter receives an unexpected package in the mail.  When he opens it, a fiery explosion paints the walls with blood, nearly killing him.  The ghost of Ned Ludd is one Theodore Kazcynski, better known as the infamous Unabomber, who launched a seventeen-year campaign of terror against ‘technologists’ to draw attention to the dangers of technological progress.

Kaczynski writes in his Manifesto that ‘The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,’  explaining that technological inventions ‘have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.’ It sounds bad, and it is bad.

Kaczynski demands that we roll back technology to pre-industrial times and turn off the lights, which is a lot like trying to shut the stable doors after the horses have bolted.  You would think that nobody but some Amish hardliners and head-chopping Islamic terrorists would prefer a horse-and-buggy to a new Mercedes, but the founder of Sun Microsystems seems to side with the Unabomber. ‘We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes,’ complains Bill Joy. ‘The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment; to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.’ (Bill Joy, ‘Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us’)  But Bill is hardly realistic; humans are not the type of animal to voluntarily relinquish technology, or eschew the pursuit of knowledge, even if that knowledge ends up turning the planet into a burnt cinder.

Perhaps this is why no alien intelligence has paid us a visit – and no visitors from the future, either; before a civilization reaches sufficient technological superiority to travel through time or cross vast distances through space, they inevitably self-destruct.  KA-BLOOEY.

Of course, it is also possible that many of the technologies considered most terrifying by the Luddites, such as grey goo nanobots and strong artificial intelligence, will turn out to be Q-Bombs.  But I wouldn’t bet my carbon-based life on it.

Bill Joy is a curious spokesman for the neo-Luddites, given his status as technology pioneer, and his article ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ seems a lot like the pot calling the kettle black. Joy proclaims that ‘Our most powerful 21st century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.’

Really, Bill?  How is a technology ‘threatening’ to do anything?  That is like saying gunpowder is ‘threatening’ to kill someone.  Or the General Theory of Relativity is threatening to blow up Hiroshima.  Or recombinant genetics is threatening to create a plague.

Technology is a tool.  And like any tool, it can be used for good purposes or for bad. I can use a shovel to plant trees, or I can use it to bash your brains out.  I was surprised, upon reading the Unabomber’s rambling Manifesto and Bill Joy’s tiptoe-luddite arguments, that neither man picked a fight with the folks who actually wield technology to cause harm; nefarious multinational corporations like Monsanto and military-industrial-complexes all over the world. Hitler’s Germany led the world in rocket research, using its advanced technology to fire V1 missiles over the English Channel, killing hundreds of people in London during the Second World War.  Should the grieving families of the victims blame ‘technology’ or Adolf Hitler for the death of their loved ones? That same technology, which the Americans gleaned from chief Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, enabled Kennedy to send a man to the moon.  And what about nuclear fission?  The same technology of neutron fission that keeps the lights on in major cities around the world can also be used to transform those cities into dystopian wastelands, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Both Bill Joy and Ted Kazcnski scrapped with technology itself, rather than its users.  A few minutes into the Unabomber’s diatribe, total bafflement struck me hard. Should a murder victim blame the gun for the hole in his head?  Should he blame the manufacturer of the gun?  How about the inventor of gunpowder?  Surely nobody but the man who wields the gun bears responsibility for the crime.  Another gun, in the hands of a brazen vigilante who happens upon the unfolding murder scene, could easily forestall the victim’s demise with a squeeze of the trigger.

Consider the bow and arrow, an instrument employed by native Americans for more than a thousand years both to slay their rivals and to slaughter animals for food.  Without the bow, natives would have perished for lack of sustenance; because of it, many of them perished for lack of compassion.  As it took lives, so it saved them.  Imagine the unlucky warrior facing the business end of a crisp arrow; did he think to himself in his final moments: ‘Damn the inventor of the bow and arrow, his technology has done me in!’  Or did he think: ‘Damn that warrior pointing an arrow at my face!’

So, in one important sense, Ted got it all wrong; people are the problem, not technology.   When bad people control technology, humanity ends up throwing a four-letter word at fate.  In another sense, though, Ted was largely correct; technology must be controlled, or it will control us.  Humans have a knack for letting their hubris nudge reality to the sidelines; we are, after all, just another species of ape – an ape that ‘carries a picture of his family in his wallet as he zooms to the moon,’ as Desmond Morris points out.  Inventing technology is one thing, controlling it is quite another.

Technological progress is like a river.  The river is flowing from less complexity to more organized complexity; from less information to more information and more knowledge; from slow information transfer to faster information transfer.  We humans are riding down the river on an innertube.  Some riders, the neo-Luddites like Bill Joy and Ted Kaczynski, want to pull ashore, light a campfire, and give up the journey.  For them, the journey is finished, and the bank of the river makes a nice home.  Whatever is downstream is too dangerous, too deadly, too mysterious, too unknown.  Other riders on the innertube want to lie back, look up at the sky, and take a nap.  Wherever we are going, we will get there when we get there.  For now, let’s just enjoy the warm sun on our faces. And still other riders, futurists like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, want something more; not content with a rubber innertube, they want to build a raft and then a boat.  They want to navigate the river, rather than allowing the river to navigate them.

But navigating the river proves challenging given our kludgy, static, outmoded human software program.  Consider the curious 21st century phenomenon known as the ‘drone strike.’  In a sense, native Americans used an early form of drone strike when they shot arrows at their enemies.  The arrows – we might as well call them drones – whistled through the air toward the unfortunate souls on the other side of the battle, commanded, in a sense, by the Will (or skill) of the archers who fired them.  Like modern drones, arrows were launched by a human being at a distant target and intended to do harm.  The ability to cause harm at a distance is, in fact, a defining aspect of the human animal.  The only real difference between arrows and modern drones is the distance of the intended target, and here is where we lose control of our technology inasmuch as we fail to understand our own psychology.

Like most mammalian predators high on the food chain, we evolved a set of adaptations designed to minimize intra-species killing.  While wolf packs occasionally clash over territory, and chimpanzee troupes routinely ‘go to war’ with each other, death in such conflicts proves the exception rather than the rule.  If animals had evolved a desire to wantonly maim and murder members of their own species, then such a species would have enjoyed a short stay on Planet Earth.  Evolution hardwired wolves and chimpanzees – and humans too – with a submission-detection module.  Wolves and apes that display submission behavior in a fight are often (though not always) spared the final death-blow.  In humans, the submission-detection module became even more advanced, morphing into what we now call ‘compassion.’

For most of human history, battle was more than a few blips on a radar screen; war meant bloody combat up-close and personal, sword-to-sword with another warrior, close enough to smell his entrails as your blade ripped through his bowels.  In this type of combat, both submission and compassion were commonplace; the victorious warrior would often yield to the signs of submission, such as sobbing or begging, sparing the life of his enemy.  His ‘compassion’ during such a struggle was an adaptation that helped the human race avoid a descent into terminal intra-species conflict, with oblivion the final destination.

In the modern world, the exponential advance of technology permits humans to kill from enormous distances, even thousands of miles away.  Intercontinental ballistic missiles enable us to wipe out entire cities with the push of a button.  As Obama lounges in the Oval Office, shuffling his ‘baseball cards’ of terrorists, searching for a drone strike victim, he is as disconnected from the visceral blood-and-guts world of combat as a tinkering auto-mechanic is from the physical laws of combustion.  Small wonder he makes life-and-death decisions so casually, as if ordering filet mignon from a fine restaurant.  Our newfound capacity to inflict harm at great distances means that the psychological modules of submission-detection and compassion, which helped us avoid murdering ourselves into extinction for tens of thousands of years, are now effectively defunct.  Useless.  The few warriors who still watch their enemies bleed out on the battlefield – special forces troops who roam Iraq playing first person shooter with the locals – had to be specially trained to avoid that inconvenient anachronism known as compassion.  For the CIA honchos who decide life and death with the push of a button controlling a drone, no such training is necessary.

We evolved to hunt big game in small groups on the African savannah.  We did not evolve to command drone strikes or  launch nuclear missiles that would render death and mayhem from thousands of miles away. How could the crude, blind forces of natural selection have prepared us for this?

For a neo-Luddite, Ted missed some important points, the most important of which is this: human evolution cannot keep pace with technological progress.  While technology has progressed exponentially over the past 10,000 years, fundamental human nature has changed not a whit; in fact our nature remains unchanged from the time of the stone age, when a crude blade forged from rock constituted some proto-Einstein’s eureka moment.  We are still homo sapiens sapiens, genetically identical to the twenty-thousand-year-old Cro Magnons who scrawled pictures of buffalo in the Lascaux caves in the hopes that they would magically manifest for the hunt.  Superstitious apes – that is all we were, and all we are.  As technology soars, human nature stagnates.  The same Shakespearean plots of betrayal, duplicity, and hubris replay themselves over and over again in Hollywood movies and best-selling books.  Despite advances in culture and technology, human nature remains entirely unchanged from our days on the African savannah.  At heart, we’re still cavemen.  The main difference between wolves and humans is that we get bigger and bigger teeth each year.

As in the film Groundhog Day, we are stuck living the same day over and over again, never able to advance beyond our fundamental nature, our fundamental limitations.  The tools in our hands have shifted from bronze to silicon, but the tools in our minds remain precisely the same.

And so Ted got it all backwards; he stood facing the archer’s deadly arrow and cursed the arrow, not the archer.  The misery facing the great masses of the world, and the devastation of our planet, is not rooted in industrial technology, but rather in those who control that technology – kludgy humans with Pleistocene brains.  We don’t need to roll technology back; we need to roll ourselves forward.

We must evolve or die off, but we cannot wait for biological evolution to catch up.  Nietzsche talked about the ‘Overman,’ but Nietzsche was wrong.  Man is not a ‘a bridge over an abyss, a bridge between Man and Overman.’  No, man is man.  And the Overman waits across the chasm, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, wondering if Man will cross the bridge or accidentally set it afire.

So what happens now?  Progress will not wait.  If we hope to survive the exponential surge of technology, and not blow ourselves to smithereens, and not wake up one morning to find our status reduced to that of a domestic dog, then we need to adjust our kludgy, Pleistocene-programmed human nature to the new realities of an information-technological world.  Those who fail to adjust will perish, either in body or in all measure of significance, swept away by the inexorable march of knowledge – shot dead, in a sense, by the arrow of time.

Copyright 2015 JESSE JAMES




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