Is Technology a Trap for Humanity?

A couple of years ago, the National Geographic channel introduced a reality show called Doomsday Preppers (http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/doomsday-preppers/). The show consists of vignettes about otherwise normal people who are convinced that some great disaster is looming, be it an economic collapse (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kotlikoff/2013/09/28/is-hyperinflation-just-around-the-corner/ ), impact event (http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-astronomers-asteroid-earth-20131017,0,7912661.story#axzz2jDgO6yzJ ), catastrophic earthquake (http://www.ceri.memphis.edu/awareness/nmsz.html ), or electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear strike high in the atmosphere (http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/emp.htm ), or excessive solar activity (http://www.wired.co.uk/tags/Solar+Flares). Surprisingly, it proved to be a hit. People enjoy the show for many reasons – like-minded people see it as a source of valuable tips to get themselves prepared for disaster, while others enjoy pooh-poohing the lengths to which the preppers go, to provide themselves with the illusion of safety. However, the show presents a very interesting point – just how dependent have we become on our technology? Most people do not produce their own food, build their own houses, nor provide for themselves the things they have come to depend upon so heavily; water, heat, their clothing, or their car. Many depend on modern medicine and pharmaceuticals for their very lives. What then, are our chances of prosperity, and even survival, without technology, as a civilization?

Over twenty years ago, another TV show made its debut, and considered a similar question before it was trendy to do so. That show was called Connections, and was created by the science historian, James Burke. (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/james-burke-connections/ ). The pilot, entitled The Trigger Effect, provided a detailed analysis of the great blackout of 1965 in the northeastern United States (http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/When-the-Lights-Went-Out-in-1965-133488738.html ). Burke adeptly demonstrated how a technological wonderland like Manhattan was instantly transformed into a potential death trap when the technology that supported it suddenly became unavailable – people found themselves trapped in elevators and subway cars, hospitals went dark, planes in flight were unable to land. The only saving grace was that the blackout lasted only hours, not days, weeks or longer. Burke went on to develop the thesis that, while it was technology that made all of the benefits of modern civilization possible, it also was a trap in the sense that no one individual could ever fully understand the workings of all of its parts, and therefore could not predict when one of those parts would abruptly fail, causing the entire system to tumble like a house of cards.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the computing giant Intel Corporation, observed that that the number of transistors per square unit area of an integrated circuit had doubled annually since the inception of that technology, and that this trend was likely to continue for some time (http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~fussell/courses/cs352h/papers/moore.pdf ). This observation, termed Moore’s Law, was extended to claim that technology itself was growing exponentially. It is self-evident that exponential growth of any kind is unsustainable – what is not apparent is how that unsustainable growth will terminate. Will it reach a sustainable equilibrium, slowly diminish as resources dwindle and degrade, or abruptly, catastrophically fail?

One possibility, first envisioned by mathematician John Von Neumann (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann ), has been dubbed the Technological Singularity (http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/ethics/signs-of-the-singularity ). The Singularity is defined as the point at which technology is growing so quickly that its entirety is beyond the grasp of humanity. Put another way, it is the point at which technology is controlling humanity, rather than humanity controlling technology. It is entirely possible that we have already reached that point. The salient question is, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

One camp, typified by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, sees the Singularity as the next point in human evolution, in which we merge with our technology to transcend our humanity. (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2048299,00.html ). This could very well be the springboard for humanity’s conquest of the cosmos.

A different, pessimistic outlook first arose during a lunchtime conversation in 1950, between the eminent physicist Enrico Fermi and some colleagues, about the possibility of extraterrestrial life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox ). Fermi was reported to have exclaimed, “Where are they?” He had realized that, since the beginning of the universe, ample time had passed such that, if advanced extraterrestrial civilizations existed, they would have found us. One possible explanation for this so-called Fermi Paradox is the possibility of some catastrophic event that inevitably occurs during the development of civilization, which none has been able to overcome, which prevents further expansion. Of course, other solutions to the Fermi Paradox, which do not lead to the probability of Armageddon, do exist (http://www.fermisparadox.com/Possible-answers-to-fermi-paradox.htm ).

However, the question remains. Is technology a trap for humanity, as James Burke envisions, or the vehicle for next great leap for humanity? Is The Singularity inevitable? One can easily become depressingly cynical when considering such ideas. Perhaps it is instructive to ponder the experience of the renowned physicist Richard Feynman, who participated in the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Like many of the scientists involved in that endeavor, he had grave misgivings about the new technology he had wrought. He said:
“I returned to civilization shortly after that and went to Cornell to teach, and my first impression was a very strange one. I can’t understand it any more, but I felt very strongly then. I sat in a restaurant in New York, for example, and I looked out at the buildings and I began to think, you know, about how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was and so forth… How far from here was 34th street?… All those buildings, all smashed — and so on. And I would see people building a bridge, or they’d be making a new road, and I thought, they’re crazy, they just don’t understand, they don’t understand. Why are they making new things? It’s so useless. But, fortunately, it’s been useless for almost forty years now, hasn’t it? So I’ve been wrong about it being useless making bridges and I’m glad those other people had the sense to go ahead.” (http://books.google.com/books?id=7papZR4oVssC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false )

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