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It is ever more urgent
that we become heretics
to the religion of science and that we reinvent
and devolve our technology. Failure
to do this will forever
bar a rapprochement
with nature, for nature
as we know it will
cease to exist

 

RECREATING LIFE IN THE IMAGE OF TECHNOLOGY
By Andrew Kimbrell

""Science Explores,Technology Executes, Man Conforms." Motto of the 1939 World's Fair For most of the 20th century, the exploitation and supplanting of nature by technology has been viewed as the primary role of science and the sine qua non of progress. The self-stated goal of science has been to control and manipulate both human and non-human nature so as to provide ever greater material good and to overcome the "deficiencies" of the natural world. The basis for this scientific manipulation of nature is the application of mathematical methods to abstract and reduce the physical world. Mathematics makes nature quantifiable. Procedures for quantifying nature can be repeated. The repeatable is predictable and the predictable is controllable. From Descartes to the present the motto of science is "mathematise nature and you will master it."
The scientific method does, of course, separate us from nature, estranging us from all but the quantifiable in creation. However, as a substitute for a participatory relationship with nature science gives us an ersatz nature, an industrial-technological environment which purports to be safer and more controllable than the natural environment. Engineer and author Samuel C. Florman welcomes the new technological order, viewing the new techno-environment as superior to the old natural one. "I can see no evidence that frequent contact with nature is essential to human well-being," Florman writes. "Why must man continue to commune with the landscapes in which he evolved?" Florman further asserts that technology has saved us from the "callous brutality, the unbelievable pain, the ever-present threat of untimely death for oneself (and worse one's children) which were the 'natural' realities with which our ancestors lived."
So if Science is the modern "god" then this deity incarnates through industrialisation and its technology. We believe in the deity of science not out of blind faith, but rather because "it works." As with the gods of the past, most of us do not understand science and often find its principles and methods arcane and mysterious. Yet we gratefully accept and are deeply devoted to science's technological incarnations which have come to dominate our lives. Technology has, without question, become the omnipresent reality mediating the vast majority of our public and private activities. Our homes, workplaces, transportation, food, energy, entertainment, leisure, education, and government have all become part of the technological grid. Moreover, society's collective hopes for the future are fired by the technological imagination. We continue to dream of, and strive for, new techniques which will cure all disease, feed the world, conquer the solar system and perhaps one day allow us all silicone immortality as our carbon based bodies and minds are transferred and downloaded into computers.
We are ourselves profoundly changed by our interaction with modern technology. As writer Jerry Mander has pointed out, on each side of the human-machine equation there are adaptions. Our machines become ever more lifelike, witness computers and virtual reality. We become more like the machines, note that repetitive motion disorder is the leading cause of workplace injuries. This adaptive homogenising process to science and technology is now being globalised with few societies able to withstand the reign of science and its technological incarnations.
However, in recent years, the zeal of the religion of science has significantly lessened. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the costs of the scientific abstraction and manipulation of nature were far beyond what could have been predicted. Most disturbing is that the scientific-technological onslaught has brought humanity face to face with the first truly global environmental crisis in recorded history. Over the last two decades the public, though still worshipping the scientific world-view, has been jolted by revelations about ecological threats to the biosphere that they had not even suspected existed - ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, species extinction, desertification, deforestation.
The crisis over science and technology's current unprecedented destruction of nature has put modern society in an historic dilemma. Humanity has become fully dependent on, and deeply addicted to, the scientific world-view and the technological environment. Yet this mode of thought and action is threatening the very viability of life on Earth. It is becoming increasingly evident that we cannot ultimately survive with our current science and technology; yet we can't imagine living without it. A common-sense approach to this quandary would be to begin reinventing our science and devolving our technologies in order to preserve the environment and our own survival. For many years there has been a small but persistent movement urging the adoption of a "new" ecological scientific approach and the substitution of sustainable or "appropriate" technologies for the megatechnologies which are so devastating to nature. However, while ecological science continues to make some inroads, neither it nor appropriate technology has received mass support among the world's policy makers. For most, remaking our technological infrastructure appears too great a task and unprofitable for the current corporate system. Further, ecological sensitivity and the appropriate technology movement go directly counter to the scientific world-view and its technological fantasies of finally conquering nature and breaking all limitations on human activity.
As the move to conform science and technology to Nature's limits fails to gain momentum, another approach to the environmental crisis is being attempted. And it is a breathtaking initiative. The scientific elite has come to realise, albeit slowly, that current technology is not compatible with the sustaining of life forms. Their solution, however, is not to change technology so that it better fits with the needs of living things, but rather to alter and engineer life so that it can survive and become more compatible with the technological milieu.
It is in this context that the enormous significance of the current revolution in biotechnology can be fully appreciated. Recombinant DNA technology is the tool which allows scientists to alter life so that it better fits the technological milieu. Genetic engineering, in fact, allows for life to be treated as technology. It is now possible to snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, programme and produce genetic material much the same way as the engineers of the industrial revolution were able to separate, collect, utilise and exploit inanimate materials. Just as the factory system allowed for the production of unlimited amounts of identical machines, just so current advances in cloning are attempting to produce industrial numbers of identical life forms. Just as prior generations initiated a patent system to encourage the production of novel machines and products, we are now seeing the patenting of altered plants, animals and even human parts which have been redefined by the US Patent and Trademark Office as "machines and manufactures". With these capabilities and patenting incentives' scientists, and their corporate and government sponsors, have the potential of becoming the architects of life itself, the authors of a technological evolution designed to create new, more "efficient", species of microbe, plant and animal (including humans) which better comport with our technological system. Genetic engineering is the final adaptation of life to machine.
Seen from this perspective, biotechnology becomes the ultimate technological fix, a startling attempt to preserve the scientific world-view from its self-inflicted demise. Global warming is dealt with by genetically engineering plants and animals to withstand the temperatures and droughts resulting from global warming. Chemical pollution in agriculture is addressed by engineering herbicide resistant plants that can survive, no matter the volume of weed-killing chemicals used. Spoilage of food in our global food system is solved by genetically designing foods for long shelf-life. The mothering instinct in factory-farm, egg-laying chickens encourages brooding which is inefficient; so scientists have now engineered and patented chickens whose "mothering" genes have been "deleted". Species after species is being altered to fit and better survive in the technological milieu.
Of course the actual success of this Procrustean engineering of life has been very limited. Even successes bring with them myriad and unprecedented environmental, economic and ethical concerns. But the citadel of experts warn us that limiting or interfering with biotechnology could threaten virtually all future scientific research and technological progress. We are told not to resist. Science has brought us this far into technological progress, abandoning the faith now can only lead to disaster. The repulsion that most feel about genetic engineering is characterised as "emotional" and unscientific. We are assured that biotechnology will be managed for us and for our good. We simply must begin to accept the view that we, and all of life, are just another form of technology. As the New York Times stated in a lead editorial: "Life is special, and human even more so, but biological machines are still machines that can be altered, cloned and patented. The consequences will be profound but taken one step at a time they can be managed."
Genetic engineering then is the ultimate triumph of modern science over life. Through biotechnology life is being absorbed into technology, both at the conceptual and the genetic level. This transforms humans and all of creation into just another technological incarnation of the scientific world-view. Given this prospect, it is ever more urgent that we become heretics to the religion of science and that we reinvent and devolve our technology. Failure to do this will forever bar a rapprochement with nature, for nature as we know it will cease to exist.

Andrew Kimbrell is a Director,at the International Center for Technology Assessment

 

 
 

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