Philippe Bihouix is a French engineer who writes essays and books on environmental issues. His best-known works are his 2010 book “Quel futur pour les métaux?” (What future for metals), which he wrote with Benoit de Guillebon, in which he discusses the scarcity of metals and the limits of the green economy, and “L’Âge des low tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable” (The age of low-tech: towards a technically sustainable civilisation), published by Seuil in 2014, in which he develops these themes and proposes concentration on low-tech technologies that consume fewer resources and less energy. He has developed the ideas still further in his 2019 book “Le bonheur était pour demain” (Happiness was for tomorrow), again published by Seuil, in which he also critiques the various notions of utopia that we see today – the cornucopian utopias of abundance, the techno-slave utopias that machines will do all our work for us, and the anthropo-augmentist notions that humans can improve their performance through technology (the ultimate expression of which is transhumanism). Below is a translation of an essay on these technocentric utopias that was first published in 2015 by the French magazine Revue du Crieur under the title “Les technosciences, ou l’utopie corrompue” (Technosciences, or utopia corrupted), and which includes some of the ideas developed in this latest book.
or utopia corrupted
survey of techno-scientific hubris
by Philippe Bihouix
This essay was first published in French in the Revue du crieur, No. 2, October 2015 with the title “Les technosciences, ou l’utopie corrompue”. A web reference to the publisher’s page is https://editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Revue_du_crieur_Na__2-9782707187987.html
Never before have we been so overwhelmed by announcements about scientific or technological breakthroughs and the future transformation of our industrial societies. It is difficult to distinguish between arm-waving and real breakthroughs, between fascination for the promises of a better world and concern about ethical questions or possible harmful consequences. Besides, is all this hype about technologies above all a sign of an era beset by doubt?
It is impossible to escape. Every week, in the general media and scientific publications, at international and corporate events, we see tub-thumping announcements and hear lively debates on scientific advances and the possibilities of revolutionary technologies. These include ‘green’ energy technologies based on smart systems, opportunities offered by big data in healthcare, even human-machine interfaces offering ‘transhumanist’ capabilities, as espoused by Google executives. The general tone is optimistic and confident about the innovative human species and the better world that awaits us through science, but there are also darker undertones, related for example to the impact of robotisation on employment or to ethical questions posed by artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation.
It is sometimes difficult to navigate the media jungle. In areas that are by nature technically complex and hyperspecialized, our ability to understand and distinguish the virtual from the real, the imminent from the distant, the idea from its implementation, is inevitably limited. If we want to try to define better these new utopias, to separate truth from fiction, to regain a historical perspective – of course without imagining that we predict the future – we must try to understand what is posturing and what is scientific announcement, to help us perceive, from the current promises of a better (technological) world, what may really work.
Abundance, techno-slavery and anthropo-augmentism
Let us start by trying to put some order into this profusion of techno-scientific utopias, of breakthroughs that we are told are to come, by dividing them into different categories. The first is that of ‘cornucopian’ utopias (from the Latin cornu copiae, the ‘horn of plenty’): scientific and industrial progress that will give us access to new resources, often in prodigious quantities. These will make irrelevant concerns about the possible exhaustion of raw materials. As you would expect, in a world swamped every year by ever increasing demands on energy, raw materials and land, this category is particularly widespread.
In the cornucopian category, we have all the technologies that could provide energy in profusion, through novel means of production and storage, or through better utilization. Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution, is based on creating, storing and sharing solar and wind energy in an ‘energy internet’. New low-cost and ultra-rapidly-charged batteries, like those of the Tesla company, will allow the massive deployment of electric vehicles and photovoltaic panels on homes. Futuristic visions of the exploitation of marine energies envisage farms of tidal turbines or wave-energy devices. We have imminent progress on fuel cells and ‘cold’ nuclear fusion, on efficient modes of transportation, from solar aircraft to propulsion of container ships by kites . . . in short, ‘peak oil’, already delayed by the exploitation of shale gas and other unconventional fuels, will soon be the concern of another age. Instead of a calling for a necessary energy sobriety, ‘We demain’ – the French magazine ‘for a change of era’ – praises ‘Hyperloop, the train that will put Paris 35 minutes from Marseilles’.
Non-renewable resources, such as metals, a priori available in limited quantities, will no longer pose problems since we can find them when needed in the oceans or in space. Astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet believes that “the exploitation of the mineral wealth of asteroids, as projected by the company Planetary Resources, is inevitable. It will come to fruition in fifty to a hundred years, and there is no doubt that space factories will be constructed in the 22nd century”. In the meantime, bio- and nanotechnologies will make it possible to design objects that are more frugal and more efficient, even completely biodegradable, inspired by nature using biomimicry. Enzymatic catalysis will replace the platinum group metals needed by the chemical industry, and nanomaterials will allow us to dispense with many metals. In the domain of water and agriculture, the prospects are just as enticing. Marginal land may be cultivated using genetically modified plants. We have ‘green’ chemistry and biomaterials, farms of the future and even ‘steak printers’ – producing artificial meat from stem cells – in order to please the animal rights lobby . . . we even think we can tow 30 million-ton icebergs thousands of miles to supply potable water to countries with water scarcity.
The second category is that of ‘techno-slavery’ utopias. The meteoric evolution of information and communication technologies (through increased computing power, software design and permanent connectivity) and the increased capacity for miniaturization of equipment will enable human work increasingly to be replaced by machines, connected devices, robots and autonomous systems. Between lower equipment costs and the mass acquisition of data and its interpretation by data sciences the possibilities are immense – from the self-driving car to the robot cook that will prepare recipes to your taste, through to robot weed killers for organic market gardening and nano-medical robots that will practice non-intrusive surgery.
If some applications are already a reality – the State of Nevada has just licensed a truck that can operate (almost) without a driver, and drones are being used for agricultural crop monitoring – others are more distant. But, undeniably, we have also not yet understood the social consequences of this wave of digitization of companies, where insurance brokers, bank clerks and restaurant servers will be the new endangered species. Some projections, probably a little too alarmist (but who knows?) talk about millions of jobs destroyed in the coming decades. As for the environmental consequences – increased energy needs, increased consumption of scarce resources, massive generation of unmanageable e-waste – almost nobody speaks about them, although Eric Drexler, nanotechnology pioneer and founder of the Foresight Institute, warns us of the uncontrolled risk of making self-replicating nano-robots that may consume large quantities of resources and transform the Earth’s surface into a uniform ‘gray goo’ – a highly improbable prospect but indeed rather unpleasant.
The third category is that of ‘anthropo-augmentist’ utopias, which envisage humanity improving its performance thanks to technology: the development of human-machine interfaces, progress in therapeutic medicine, knowledge about the mechanisms of aging and regeneration. The ultimate utopia, but perhaps a logical conclusion, is that of the ‘transhumanist’ movement. At first, it might involve a ‘simple’ increase of human capacities – with or without eugenics, the ‘increase’ then occurring natively or with the aid of a few marketed devices, for example – but what is ultimately targeted is nothing less than immortality, through the progress of medicine, cloning, even the downloading of consciousness on digital devices … Laurent Alexandre gives a rather persuasive description of Google’s obsession, with executives (often in their forties) launched on a development programme in a race against the clock and with acquisitions of very ambitious companies (among others eight robotics companies in 2013 and three working on artificial intelligence in 2014). Google does not hide its thinking, and the recruitment of Raymond Kurzweil to its management team in 2012 showed the direction it is taking. He predicts that an immense revolution – which he calls ‘a singularity’ – will occur in a few decades: reality and virtual reality will merge, humans will be able to adopt different bodies, and multiply the versions of their minds.
For his part, the biologist and writer Joel de Rosnay imagines that it is possible that “intelligent robots will one day be endowed with sensitivity, empathy, capacity for abstraction, even intuition . . .”. But, instead of worrying publicly, like a number of influential personalities, scientists and business leaders, including astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Elon Musk (Tesla), who believe that the emergence of an uncontrolled artificial intelligence could be ”the end of the human species” (Hawking) and “our greatest threat to life” (Gates), de Rosnay proposes instead that “complementary evolution in symbiosis with digital machines and artificial intelligence” will lead humanity towards “an integrated and collective symbiosis” ensuring “complementarity between artificial intelligence and connected human brains” because “the intelligence of our brains, interconnected in symbiosis with robots, artificial intelligence and digital networks, is evolving at exponentially”. This jargon is typical of the brilliant but aging author of Macroscope.
We could also mention a fourth category, because the rise of ecological maladies makes it relevant, that of ‘restorative’ utopias: for example, geo-engineering aimed at curbing climate change (with the potentially huge risk involved in manipulation at a large scale of phenomena that are still largely misunderstood) or ‘yellow biotechnologies’ using modified bacteria to clean up soil or water. There is even the possibility of reviving extinct species: for example, Mammuthus Primigenius, the familiar woolly mammoth, is at the head of the list to be revived, owing to the sympathy it provokes and the proper preservation of its DNA in a few frozen individuals, with an emotional thought for our ancestors who may have contributed, by over hunting, to the disappearance of part of the megafauna of the Pleistocene. What does it matter then that the last rhinos are used to make aphrodisiac powders! By freezing some embryos, in a while we can repair the damage. This category of utopias could easily be melded into the first three, because a ‘restorative’ economy is only one way to access abundance without undergoing, or at best managing, the hard-to-avoid consequences of exploiting the environment.
It is not surprising that this journalistic genre is flourishing and its promises are so attractive, even when some find them so extravagant. In effect, the three categories of techno-scientific utopias correspond to three parameters that are more or less at the heart of all human activity – resources (raw materials), work (their transformation) and intelligence (which makes it possible to design and guide this transformation). These are reminiscent of a triptych already identified: land, labour, capital (human), in a nod to Marx, or to Polanyi and his ‘great transformation’ of land (rent) and labour (wages) into goods.
To put it another way, most technological utopias promise us abundance (availability of resources at will), idleness (machines working for us), power or capabilities (for oneself and others, thanks to increased capacities); that is to say, fantasies widely present in all the cultures, mythologies, morals and religions of the peoples of the Earth. This hubris has always been fought by the Ancients, but it continues to be found attractive. Temperance (one of the four cardinal virtues of Aristotle) opposes the desire for abundance. Idleness has never really been virtuous, unlike hard work (you will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow) or pride in accomplishment. As for power fantasies, they were always controlled by the recognition of the social interest in a certain balance between ambition and modesty, even a certain humility, “more useful than harmful” for Spinoza and to live “under the guidance of reason”. These are the moral questions facing our techno-industrial societies.
The technocritical tradition
As always, in scientific and technical fields, promises also have their dark side. It is therefore logical that the announced technological surge, whether real or in the making, leads to anxiety, reactions and attacks. Criticism of the influence of technology, and of the risks associated with it, is part of a long tradition. It grew in importance after the Second World War and with the advent of the atomic era: key voices were the historian Lewis Mumford and his ‘megamachines’, Günther Anders, Jacques Ellul and his ‘technician system’, the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher and his ‘intermediate technologies’, Ivan Illich and his ‘user-friendly tools’ and the environmentalist André Gorz and his denouncement of the ‘heteronomy’ of economic activities. All took a critical look at the evolution of our industrial societies.
In recent years, in the face of the accelerated development of new technologies and the convergence on NBICs (nanotechnology/biotechnology/information technology/cognitive science), new ‘technocritics’ have emerged. The term itself has been coined by the historian François Jarrige, specialist in Luddite movements. Unsurprisingly, there are environmental or health considerations, such as those concerning the manipulation of living organisms by biotechnologies, the massive dispersion of particles by nanotechnologies or multiple exposures to electromagnetic radiation. However, there also more systemic reflections on the fragility or lack of resilience of increasingly complex technical societies, an argument made especially by those who are studying the consequences of peak oil and the risk of a decline in energy supplies, building in particular on the work of the anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter. Finally, more and more voices have arisen to denounce technological influence and its cognitive, social, and even moral and political effects. These include job destruction or loss of meaning at work, excessive individualization, dilution of ethical benchmarks, profound transformation of family and social relationships, development of security policies with the emergence of technological means of social control and generalized surveillance, today through the internet and mobile phone, and tomorrow through RFID chips and ubiquitously connected objects.
A litany that is already old
Technical utopias are not new. Between the publication of the founding work of Thomas More and the end of the 18th century, utopias focused mainly on political issues – especially the fight against absolutism. The 19th century, highly techno-progressive, is fruitful in technological utopias, although it is the rather socially-oriented utopias (Robert Owen, Charles Fourier …), sometimes still of religion (Count de Saint-Simon), that predominate during the first half of that century. This is understandable, given the social devastation of early industrialisation, with long hours, child labour and the absence of trade unions or worker power in the face of unbridled capitalism. Among some of the pearls published is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – enough to excite any ‘transhumanist’ ardour of the time. However, technical progress and the dazzling scientific achievements of the second half of the 19th century dragged utopia into the technical domain, especially through literature, from Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864) to HG Wells (The Time Machine, 1895).
From that time, technology promises to make the world better, and even to end the class struggle that Marx was promoting. So, for example, William Winwood Reade, historian, explorer and philosopher, wrote in 1872 that thanks to “the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process […] Food will then be manufactured in unlimited quantities […] Hunger and starvation will then be unknown”. These are already cornucopian dreams, while transhumanism is in gestation since, according to Reade, ‘[…] Disease will be extirpated; the causes of decay will be removed; immortality will be invented. […] These bodies that we now wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them […] A time will come when science will transform them by means that we cannot conjecture”. And “then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate in space and will cross the airless Saharas that separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. […] Men […] will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds”
At the beginning 20th century, science fiction became the utopian genre par excellence, affecting all technical and ethical fields, exploring to the very limits the negative side of technological or social innovations (as do Karel Capek or Aldous Huxley). After the doubts instilled by Hiroshima, technological utopia re-emerges and, in the wake of the American program Atoms for peace, we are promised toast and helicopters for all. ‘But atomic energy could also […] propel cars, with a small engine the size of a child’s balloon lasting ten or twenty years without recharging’. For others, “ […] apes will lose their freedom and will be used for various manual work, as laborers become more difficult to find. They could, in particular, work picking fruit and vegetables”. There is here a curious resonance with a recent article by Usbek and Rica entitled ‘Le temps des Frankensinges’ (the time of the Franken-monkeys) in the magazine ‘that explores the future’ Usbek et Rica, because “the latest genetic discoveries make it possible to create enhanced primates”. Poor anthropoid apes, maybe they would like to replace our agricultural workers, but it is a little late to offer them this opportunity, because the intensive production of palm oil, even organically or sustainably, leaves them only a small chance of survival. Their natural habitat – yesterday Malaysia and Indonesia for the orangutan, tomorrow Central Africa for gorillas – is being destroyed at great speed and replaced by monoculture plantations. In the years 1960-1970, the literature of science-fiction continued to hold the upper hand (with for example Philippe K. Dick or Isaac Asimov), accompanied by film productions and television series (with the ever-present fantasy of the ‘augmented’ human in the Six Million Dollar Man and his mate the Bionic Woman).
So, is there nothing new under the sun? While this may be true there does seem to be, in quantity as well as in ‘quality’, an undeniable acceleration. Is it mark of something common to all eras, a post-’end of history’ effect, or a consequence of the acceleration of our time described by Harmut Rosa? Furthermore, as if things were not going fast enough, we’ve recently seen calls to go even further and faster, in the most perfect techno-optimism, in both the ‘accelerationist’ manifesto and the ‘ecomodernist’ manifesto of some scientists from the controversial Breakthrough Institute, calling to discard the precautionary principle and restraint in order to adopt life-saving technologies, the first to bring down capitalism, the second to save the planet.
Some explanations of our times
Why do we observe today such a proliferation, to the point of saturation, of presentations and announcements, with a good many distinctly lacking in credibility?
There is, undeniably, a pure ‘volume effect’, as for aircraft accidents. Even as aircraft reliability improves and accidents per kilometer/ passenger transported become fewer and fewer, the explosion of global air traffic is such that, numerically, there may be more accidents. In the same way, we are every year more numerous; there are more universities, researchers, scientists, journalists, media, who communicate with each other practically in real time, with increased ease of communication and translation. So, an announcement of a ‘discovery’ by Australian researchers, provided that it has a well-chosen title or description and a subject that is a little controversial or sexy, will quickly be broadcast on a planetary scale, whereas it might have remained local, even unknown, barely ten years ago.
There is also the very organization of our society, which means that many actors in international networks have an interest in ‘proclaiming’ and showing that ‘the world is moving’: consultants who want sell you a project to change your outdated business model; economists and professors of management or sociology needing interest in their courses or publications; journalists subject to ever-stronger competition who are pressed to find flashy topics and headlines, under a pressure of time that does not facilitate critical thinking, taking a step back or adding appropriate comments; career scientists caught up in a race for peer reviewed publications and the capture of public or private budgets; diverse institutional actors surfing on the novelty effect and innovation – which is now truly a cult, with at its head the innovative entrepreneur (who now works in a team, in a project or network, in line with the ‘new spirit of capitalism’).
Finally, it is not impossible that a certain feeling of stalemate (pollution, resource depletion, crisis of the Western model after a whiff of optimism post 1989-1991, problems with social networks …) combined with the tremendous exponential acceleration of new technologies, has made at the same time a discussion of technological alternatives necessary and credible. But some of the ‘technology gurus’ who preside today had their apprenticeships in the 1970s- 1980 or earlier (Joel de Rosnay, Jeremy Rifkin, Jacques Attali or, in more critical group but resolutely techno-optimistic, Michel Serres.. .): raised in the progressive era of Les Trente Glorieuses (‘the glorious thirty’ – the thirty years following the end of the second world war) and weaned on science fiction. Maybe they just pursue their childhood dreams, which partly explains their delight in technological innovations, whatever they may be? Or are they animated by fear of growing older, of appearing retrograde and archaic, thus pushing them (in order to remain relevant in a dynamic world) to this cult of technology without limits? Most surprising, among these professional futurologists and these different ‘experts’ on success, is their ability to assert their certainties without expressing the slightest doubt – regardless of past mistakes – and to believe that the media aura comes as much from their learned tone as their ability to analyse and anticipate. It is true that people have always been fond of expertise, yesterday reading the entrails of chickens and today in the different media. We demain, in an article entitled ‘2015 seen from yesterday, 2065 viewed from the present-day’ gently pokes fun at the predictions from the 1960s of hover-cars in our time, and of inter-continental space travel, with less affluent travellers having to settle for supersonic and hypersonic flights. But a few pages later it reports from Stanford University researcher Sebastian Thrun, who announces without hesitation that ‘by 2040, people will use more personal flying vehicles than cars for daily journeys ‘. See you in 25 years, but when bicycles are making a comeback in the centres of our cities, let us at least have the right to doubt it!
In the field of futurology, a little modesty would be appropriate, because in reality, real disruption is rarely foreseen. Certainly, the computing, modelling, gathering and analysis of statistical data will undeniably increase exponentially … and, of course, so will our understanding of many phenomena. But, unfortunately, the complexity of the world evolves too – for example the interconnection of economic systems through globalization – and systemic interactions are difficult to model. This makes any ‘forecasting’ particularly problematic.
Let’s go back to our promises. Why will many of them never be realised? Essentially, because they neglect three major and absolutely unavoidable phenomena. First, contrary to appearances and what we might think given the regular appearance of new artefacts in our lives, our industrial system does not change as fast as that. It is based on major ‘engineered systems’ – energy infrastructure (power plants, networks, refineries), transportation (roads, railways, canals, ports), buildings, industrial equipment (chemical, petrochemical) and utilities (water treatment and purification plants), that are physically almost unchanging or very slow to move. So, are we still in the coal age – the first source of electricity – and of oil … This ‘installed base’ effect creates a severe inertia, and we must not be deceived by the speed of deployment of mobile telephony or the Internet. This is because it is comparatively straightforward to build a new macro-technical system onto others – and the new systems become interdependent with the old: for example, energy networks are now very much dependent on real-time data exchange, while telecommunications are themselves powered by electric power – but it is much more difficult to replace an existing technical macro-system. This is why, for example, apart from technical or financial issues, the deployment of a hydrogen-based energy network is far from being inevitable: the effort to replace pipelines, port facilities, storage areas, refineries, gas stations, etc., by their hydrogen equivalent, is much greater than it seems, and by comparison the installation of a few thousand mobile telephony base stations is straightforward. Small-scale prowess can be impressive, but to make a prototype smart or 3D printed house cannot be compared with transforming for example 30 million homes in France, and a successful laboratory experiment does not inherently lead to deployment of ‘depolluting’ and ‘bio-inspired’ technologies across a whole territory … most of the time, this step will not be taken. We can rattle on about possible ‘clean coal’ thanks to the capture and sequestration of CO2, but we already know that it will be impossible to re-equip the entire existing fleet of power stations and industrial plants, some of which have only recently been built, and cannot be modified, and whose expected lifespan is greater than 40 or 50 years.
Secondly, most ‘technological myths’ neglect the component of non-renewable resources which is the systemic link between resources and energy. In theory, a gigantic amount of energy is available, but that which was abundant and cheap is becoming scarce, and to continue to produce or extract ‘new’ energy will require increasing amounts of resources, energy and metals of all kinds. There are still enormous amounts of gas and oil shale, of methane hydrates and solar radiation available … but these will take larger and larger quantities of complex equipment to recover, or capture and store. In the same way, metal ores are becoming less and less concentrated – again, the quantity is huge, but quality and accessibility are down – so needing more and more energy to be refined into metals.
The circular economy, based on eco-design and recycling, should be a solution to the shortage of metals, but it will only work partially. Significant quantities of resources are dispersed (e.g. dyes, various additives) and the bewildering complexity of our products (composite materials, alloys, increasingly miniaturized and integrated components) creates a mixture of materials that makes recycling without functional loss and degradation very challenging. Even when the waste is treated correctly, it is impossible to achieve 100% effective recycling. There are always yield losses and energy, technical, or economic limits. And the more the products are high tech, filled with electronic components, the worse this phenomenon becomes. Nanotechnology, for example, literally explodes the dispersive uses, with irretrievable metallic particles included in nanomaterials.
All the ‘cornucopian’ technologies come up against this wall of resources, this physical constraint. The world has not become ‘immaterial’ with the Internet: a computer or smartphone contains dozens of metals, including copper and silver (contactors, conductors), lithium and cobalt (batteries), tin (solder electronics), tantalum (capacitors), gold (microprocessors), ruthenium (hard disks), tellurium (flash memory), platinum, palladium, antimony, indium … storage in the Cloud does not make the electricity consumption of the Internet and its connected devices disappear – it is already 10% of all the world’s electricity – and it is based on the very material fibre-optic networks (doped with germanium), transmission equipment and air-conditioned data centres. Many technical developments are overwhelmed by the famous ‘rebound effect’: the volume of data exchanged and stored has exploded, multiplying by a factor of eight in five years with a further tripling by 2017; and the advent of big data and the Internet of Things promises to continue to boost numbers in the future. Rifkin is wrong, the Internet is not free: it can give the illusion of being free (open source, many MOOCs, collaborative sites …), but it must be paid for – through network access charges, collected by telecommunications operators, or, in such a way as to be invisible, through advertising – to cover installed equipment, electricity bills, the staff costs of cleaners or operators of data centres etc. And if you do not pay for a service, then you are not the consumer, but the product sold.
Thirdly, there is the question of costs, which includes the necessary physical resources (to return to previous point) or the need for labour and capital, i.e. investment in industrial facilities. How many of these technologies will be economically accessible to our societies? We already have great difficulty in financing the high-speed rail lines of the existing networks, so it is likely that the cost of Hyperloop (the high-speed transportation system mentioned above), for example, will be totally prohibitive, because of the acquisitions necessary to build a sufficiently straight line, necessary for such a speed of operation. Take robotisation: it works well where robots perform many repetitive tasks, such as on assembly lines, to reduce design, manufacturing and maintenance costs. But it is unlikely that a robot will come to unblock your sink or iron your laundry, simply because even if this could be achieved technically, the cost would be prohibitive compared to a plumber – even in Paris – or a maid. In ‘techno-slavery’ fantasies, we forget that a technological society such as ours needs, to function, to be pyramidal, technically and socially. In the world of robots and drones, we need human workers who repair, install and design them. We are far from the printer that prints itself or the robot that self-replicates and repairs itself. For this reason, a scenario of orbiting habitats for the hyper-rich as in the film Elysium is absolutely not credible: simply to use a helicopter or a private jet (not to mention of a space shuttle), it is not enough just to be veryrich, it takes a whole middle class, including pilots, engineers, mechanics, refinery maintenance operators, inventory managers, truck drivers … a middle class with dreams, with desires to be realised, his hopes of a better life for their children… Finally, to put robots everywhere, would deprive the wealthier classes of the pleasure (the need?) of seeing the other members of society being subjected to them, of asserting their power over others, especially in the field of services – the smiling waitress or the stuffy sommelier in the fancy restaurant.
All technological hopes seem to be allowed by Moore’s law (increasing the density of transistors in electronic devices), together with those of Kryder (on the density of storage in hard disks) and Nielsen (the transmission capacity of networks). Every day, 8 trillion transistors per second are made – 2.5 x 1020 transistors per year in 2014! For this, the most manufactured object on Earth, we approach in numbers the stars of the universe – estimated at about 1022, a few hundred billion stars per galaxy, in a few hundred billion galaxies – compare to our modest 100 billion neurons … it’s so dizzying that Kurzweil, anticipating these exponential curves, comes to imagine the point of ‘singularity’ somewhere around 2045. But nothing is less certain, for on the one hand it will be necessary to maintain the rate of technological improvement, and, on the on the other, while purely ‘computational’ or ‘statistical’ applications, such as medical interpretations, chess, machine translation, unmanned car, are close or already there, it is less likely that we will come to understand the complexity of living things sufficiently to create consciousness or emotion, or to download a human brain onto a computer. While the development of synthetic biology is progressing fast, we still falter in our understanding of very many of the mechanisms of life.
Back to the (probable) reality
In any case, the path to the ‘dream’ world will be long and costly. First, to make new innovations pay back within a reasonable time, companies will need to amortize their investments and pay their employees and their shareholders. So, to finance the colossal investments that will be required for the significant and uncertain research and development on the ‘augmented’ man of the future, they will have to find markets that are able to provide large, stable and sustainable investments without a quick return. Military applications therefore offer a completely natural means. Technological developments and military activities are intimately linked, at least since the discovery of copper, and it is certain that the first applications of the ‘augmented’ man are and will be financed and tested to make ‘infantrymen of the future’.
This is a long and expensive path, especially for the planet, because all these developments will be far from neutral in terms of resource consumption and generation of waste. Increased demand for scarce resources will accentuate the pressure of mining on ecosystems and the volume of electronic waste will become unmanageable. It already is, in fact, since a large part of the 42 million tonnes generated in 2014 (according to the United Nations estimates) is not processed in specific sectors and ends in incinerators or in landfill. Even when processed, many of these wastes are exported as used equipment – to circumvent the Basel Convention – and end up in informal recycling systems in Ghana, in India or China, causing irreversible pollution of soils and groundwater. The ‘solutions’ to environmental disorders based on new technologies must be examined seriously if we want to prevent them from becoming truly devastating; otherwise we risk continuing to destroy the biosphere while dreaming of unattainable exo-planets.
Finally, nothing says that the technologies developed will be accessible to all. Telecommunications give us a bad example by letting us believe that progress is always generalizable, physically and economically. But only a small percentage of the world’s population can take the plane, several decades after its ‘democratization’, while many are suffering from their environmental impact – either directly, from proximity to airports, or indirectly, in oil producing zones. Ivan Illich has shown how the construction of a motorway or a high-speed railway line saves time for the users but causes loss to others who have to circumnavigate the infrastructure. So, maybe we can all become multilingual with a chip embedded or connected to our brain, but will we all become perfect and immortal? It seems hard to believe. And, beyond physical, financial or human resources, it will probably be necessary to retain elements of differentiation, such as the rivalry that is the engine of conspicuous consumption, driven by the very wealthy and then trickled down the social pyramid, as the economist Thorstein Veblen proposed in his theory of the leisure class.
Tomorrow, will you be a man, my son?
Beyond these promises of abundance and happiness – often for tomorrow or the day after – that have existed since the beginning of industrial civilization in the 19th century, another question now arises: that of the cognitive and social impact of new technologies. “Tomorrow, will you be a man, my son?” a Kipling advocating temperance and virtue might ask himself anew. It is undeniable that everything that makes us, or makes us Human – to be aware of what surrounds us, because Man is a social animal, built in otherness – nature, cities at a human scale, family relationships and social systems, value systems, the transmission of knowledge, etc., is disturbed, jostled, transformed, questioned and sometimes swept away by technological developments. These developments occur more or less quickly, but often in less than a generation, and are accentuated by the phenomenon of the shifting baseline, that is the inability to transmit to the next generation, in sufficient detail, precision or reality, in a word as lived, the reality of the world as it was. This is how the degradation of the environment does not necessarily become more obvious with the passing of time, because we ‘collectively’ forget and we do not sense the collapse, for example, in the numbers of insects or birds. Similarly, today we are unable to understand the real impact of technologies because we do not have the necessary perspective – we do not know, for example, what will be the effect on the youngest of the omnipresence of screens since the spread of electronic tablets. If we project onto next thirty years the exponential technical and social acceleration of the last thirty years we cannot even guarantee the maintenance of the current functioning of our societies.
As science fiction has constantly conveyed, and as technocritical movements and some distinguished personalities remind us, technological danger exists. But it is less likely to be found in the Terminator’s takeover by machines and artificial intelligence, in The Matrix’s confusion of the virtual and the real, or in the grey goo of self-replicating nanorobots, than in Mad Max or Waterworld – in environmental disaster and widespread shortages – or, above all, in Brave New World’s eugenics and happy humanity, but suppressed dreams. The end of humanity to be feared is perhaps not the end of mankind, but of a good part of what has hitherto constituted us as human beings.
Technological promises, ever more numerous and extraordinary, will continue to occupy the media space. And it is also to be feared that the more the environment deteriorates, the more tensions are exacerbated, the more announcements of a better world will follow, a phenomenon well described by Bertrand Méheust in La Politique de l’oxymore (The Politics of the Oxymoron). Cognitive dissonance, the unpleasant state of tension provoked by ‘incompatible knowledge, beliefs or opinions’37, is just beginning. It is a safe bet that these utopias, from now confined to the technoscientific field, flattering our lowest instincts, rid of all ethical considerations, of any human and political dimension, of any social or subversive reflection, of any potential for revolt, these ‘ready-to-consume’ utopias embedded in our technological systems, will flourish in a long twilight.
Translated by Chris
McMahon, September 2018
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