The World of Tomorrow 75 Years Later

April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago. 


1939 World's Fair Progress“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.

The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”

This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”

The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs

Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.

1939 World's FairThe genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.

As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.

Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:

“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”

What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:

“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”

Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.

Democracity, inside the Perisphere

Corporate Liturgies

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”

In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.

A Political Question of the First Order

In the course of urging us to “think what we are doing,” Hannah Arendt made the following observations in her 1958 work, The Human Condition:

“This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”

Later on she adds:

“But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

As is always the case with such excerpts, I offer them for your consideration because I find them interesting and provocative.

Why A Life Made Easier By Technology May Not Necessarily Be Happier

Tim Wu, of the Columbia Law School, has been writing a series of reflections on technological evolution for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. In the first of these, “If a Time Traveller Saw a Smartphone,” Wu offers what he calls a modified Turing test as a way of thinking about the debate between advocates and critics of digital technology (perhaps, though, it’s more like Searle’s Chinese room).

Imagine a time-traveller from 1914 (a fateful year) encountering a woman behind a veil. This woman answer all sorts of questions about history and literature, understands a number of languages, performs mathematical calculations with amazing rapidity, etc. To the time-traveller, the woman seems to possess a nearly divine intelligence. Of course, as you’ve already figured out, she is simply consulting a smartphone with an Internet connection.

Wu uses this hypothetical anecdote to conclude, “The time-traveller scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify ‘we.’ This is why [Clive] Thompson and [Nicholas] Carr reach different results: Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.” And that’s not a bad way of characterizing the debate.

Wu closes his first piece by suggesting that our technological augmentation has not been secured without incurring certain costs. In the second post in the series, Wu gives us a rather drastic case study of the kind of costs that sometimes come with technological augmentation. He tells the story of the Oji-Cree people, who until recently lived a rugged, austere life in northern Canada … then modern technologies showed up:

“Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor.”

Wu understands that this is an extreme case. Some may find that cause to dismiss the Oji-Cree as outliers whose experience tell us very little about the way societies ordinarily adapt to the evolution of technology. On the other hand, the story of the Oji-Cree may be like a time-lapse video which reveals aspects of reality ordinarily veiled by their gradual unfolding. In any case, Wu takes the story as a warning about the nature of technological evolution.

“Technological evolution” is, of course, a metaphor based on the processes of biological evolution. Not everyone, however, sees it as a metaphor. Kevin Kelly, who Wu cites in this second post, argues that technological evolution is not a metaphor at all. Technology, in Kelly’s view, evolves precisely as organisms do. Wu rightly recognizes that there are important differences between the two, however:

“Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for.”

And this leads Wu to conclude, “Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility.” That possibility is a “future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.” A future, Wu notes, that was neatly captured by the animated film WALL•E.


Wu’s conclusion echoes some of the concerns I raised in an earlier post about the future envisioned by the transhumanist project. It also anticipates the third post in the series, “The Problem With Easy Technology.” In this latest post, Wu suggests that “the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.”

Wu goes on to draw a distinction between demanding technologies and technologies of convenience. Demanding technologies are characterized by the following: “technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure.” Convenience technologies, on the other hand, “require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.”

Of course, convenience technologies don’t even deliver on their fundamental promise. Channelling Ruth Cowan’s More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave, Wu writes,

“The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive.”

But, more importantly, Wu worries that technologies of convenience may rob our action “of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.” Toward the end of his post, he urges readers to “take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.”

I trust that I’ve done a decent job of faithfully capturing the crux of Wu’s argument in these three pieces, but I encourage you to read all three in their entirety.

I also encourage you to read the work of Albert Borgmann. I’m not sure if Wu has read Borgmann or not, but his discussion of demanding technologies was anticipated by Borgmann nearly 30 years ago in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. What Wu calls demanding technology, Borgmann called focal things, and these entailed accompanying focal practices. Wu’s technologies of convenience are instances of what Borgmann called the device paradigm.

In his work, Borgmann sought to reveal the underlying pattern that modern technologies exhibited–Borgmann is thinking of technologies dating back roughly to the Industrial Revolution. The device paradigm was his name for the pattern that he discerned.

Borgmann arrived at the device paradigm by first formulating the notion of availability. Availability is a characteristic of technology which answers to technology’s promise of liberation and enrichment. Something is technologically available, Bormann explains, “if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” At the heart of the device paradigm is the promise of increasing availability.

Borgmann goes on to distinguish between things and devices. While devices tend toward technological availability, what things provide tend not to be instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, or easy. The difference between a thing and a device is a matter of the sort of engagement that is required of user. The difference is such that user might not even be the best word to describe the person who interacts with a thing. In another context, I’ve suggested that practitioner might be a better way of putting it, but that does not always yield elegant phrasing.

A thing, Borgmann writes, “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” And immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the things world.” Bodily and social engagement–we’ll come back to that point later. But first, a concrete example to help us better understand the distinctions and categories Borgmann is employing.

Borgmann invites us to consider how warmth might be made available to a home. Before central heating, warmth might be provided by a stove or fireplace. This older way of providing warmth, Borgmann reminds us, “was not instantaneous because in the morning a fire first had to be built in the stove or fireplace. And before it could be built, trees had to be felled, logs had to be sawed and split, the wood had to be hauled and stacked.” Borgmann continues:

“Warmth was not ubiquitous because some rooms remained unheated, and none was heated evenly …. It was not entirely safe because one could get burned or set the house on fire. It was not easy because work, some skills, and attention were constantly required to build and sustain a fire.”

The contrasts at each of these points with central heating are obvious. Central heating illustrates the device paradigm by the manner in which it secures the technological availability of warmth. It conceals the machinery, the means we might say, while perfecting what Borgmann calls the commodity, the end. Commodity is Borgmann’s word for “what a device is there for,” it is the end that the means are intended to secure.

The device paradigm, remember, is a pattern that Borgmann sees unfolding across the modern technological spectrum. The evolution of modern technology is characterized by the progressive concealment of the machinery and the increasingly available commodity. “A commodity is truly available,” Borgmann writes, “when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means.” Flipping a switch on a thermostat clearly illustrates this sort of commodious availability, particularly when contrasted with earlier methods of providing warmth.

It’s important to note, too, what Borgmann is not doing. He is not distinguishing between the technological and the natural. Things can be technological. The stove is a kind of technology, after all, as is the fireplace. Borgmann is distinguishing among technologies of various sorts, their operational logic, and the sort of engagement that they require or invite. Nor, while we’re at it, is Borgmann suggesting that modern technology has not improved the quality of life. There can be no human flourishing were people are starving or dying of disease.

But, like Tim Wu, Borgmann does believe that the greater comfort and ease promised by technology does not necessarily translate into greater satisfaction or happiness. There is a point at which, the gains made by technology stop yielding meaningful satisfaction. Wu believes this is so because of “our biological need to be challenged.” There’s certainly something to that. I made a similar argument some time ago in opposing the idea of a frictionless life. Borgmann’s analysis, however, adds two more important considerations: bodily and social engagement.

“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” He then adds, “sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill … Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement.”

Consider again the example of the wood-burning stove or fireplace as a means of warmth. The more intense physical engagement may be obvious, but Borgmann invites us to consider the social dimensions as well:

“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”

Borgmann’s vision of a richer, more fulfilling life secures its greater depth by taking seriously both our embodied and social status. This vision goes against the grain of modernity’s account of the human person which is grounded in a Cartesian dismissal of the body and a Lockean conception of the autonomous individuality. To the degree that this is an inadequate account of the human person, a technological order that is premised upon it will always undermine the possibility of human flourishing.

Wu and Borgmann have drawn our attention to what may be an important source of our discontent with the regime of contemporary technology. As Wu points out in his third piece, the answer is not necessarily an embrace of all things that are hard and arduous or a refusal of all the advantages that modern technology has secured for us. Borgmann, too, is concerned with distinguishing between different kinds of troubles: those that we rightly seek to ameliorate in practice and in principle and those we do well to accept in practice and in principle. Making that distinction will help us recognize and appreciate what may be gained by engaging with what Borgmann has called the commanding presence of focal things and what Wu calls demanding technologies.

Admittedly, that can be a challenging distinction to make, but learning to make that distinction may be the better part of wisdom given the technological contours of contemporary life, at least for those who have been privileged to enjoy the benefits of modern technology in affluent societies. And I’m of the opinion that the work of Albert Borgmann is one of the more valuable resources available to us as seek to make sense of the challenges posed by the character of contemporary technology.


For more on Borgmann, take a look at the following posts:

Low-tech Practice and Identity
Troubles We Must Not Refuse
Resisting Disposable Reality 

The Transhumanist Promise: Happiness You Cannot Refuse

Transhumanism, a diverse movement aimed at transcending our present human limitations, continues to gravitate away from the fringes of public discussion toward the mainstream. It is an idea that, to many people, is starting to sound less like a wildly unrealistic science-fiction concept and more like a vaguely plausible future. I imagine that as the prospect of a transhumanist future begins to take on the air of plausibility, it will both exhilarate and mortify in roughly equal measure.

Recently, Jamie Bartlett wrote a short profile of the transhumanist project near the conclusion of which he observed, “Sometimes Tranhumanism [sic] does feel a bit like modern religion for an individualistic, technology-obsessed age.” As I read that line, I thought to myself, “Sometimes?”

To be fair, many transhumanist would be quick to flash their secular bona fides, but it is not too much of a stretch to say that the transhumanist movement traffics in the religious, quasi-religious, and mystical. Peruse, for example, the list of speakers at last year’s Global Future 2045 conference. The year 2045, of course, is the predicted dawn of the Singularity, the point at which machines and humans become practically indistinguishable.

In its aspirations for transcendence of bodily limitations, its pursuit of immortality, and its promise of perpetual well-being and the elimination of suffering, Transhumanism undeniably incorporates traditionally religious ambitions and desires. It is, in other words, functionally analogous to traditional religions, particularly the Western, monotheistic faiths. If you’re unfamiliar with the movement and are wondering whether I might have exaggerated their claims, I invite you to watch the following video introduction to Transhumanism put together by British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS):

All of this amounts to a particularly robust instance of what the historian David Noble called, “the religion of technology.” Noble’s work highlighted the long-standing entanglement of religious aspirations with the development of the Western technological project. You can read more about the religion of technology thesis in this earlier post. Here I will only note that the manifestation of the religion of technology apparent in the Transhumanist movement betrays a distinctly gnostic pedigree. Transhumanist rhetoric is laced with a palpable contempt for humanity in its actual state, and the contempt is directed with striking animus at the human body. Referring to the human body derisively as a “meat sack” or “meat bag” is a common trope among the more excitable transhumanist. As Katherine Hayles has put it, in Transhumanism bodies are “fashion accessories rather than the ground of being.”

posthumanism crossIn any case, the BIOPS video not too subtly suggests that Christianity has been one of the persistent distractions keeping us from viewing aging as we should, not as a “natural” aspect of the human condition, but as a disease to be combatted. This framing may convey an anti-religious posture, but what emerges on balance is not a dismissal of the religious aims, but rather the claim that they may be better realized through other, more effective means. The Posthumanist promise, then, is the promise of what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the immanentized eschaton. The traditional religious category for this is idolatry with a healthy sprinkling of classical Greek hubris for good measure.

After discussing “super-longevity” and “super-intelligence,” the BIOPS video goes on to discuss “super well-being.” This part of the video begins at the seven-minute mark, and it expresses some of the more troubling aspects of the Transhumanist vision, at least as embraced by this particular group. This third prong of the Transhumanist project seeks to “phase out suffering.” The segment begins by asking viewers to imagine that as parents they had the opportunity to opt their child out of “chronic depression,” a “low pain threshold,” and “anxiety.” Who would choose these for their own children? Of course, the implicit answer is that no well-meaning, responsible parent would. We all remember Gattaca, right?

A robust challenge to the Transhumanist vision is well-beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a challenge that needs to be carefully and thoughtfully articulated. For the present, I’ll leave you with a few observations.

First, the nature of the risks posed by the technologies Posthumanists are banking on is not that of a single, clearly destructive cataclysmic accident. Rather, the risk is incremental and not ever obviously destructive. It takes on the character of the temptation experienced by the main character, Pahom, in Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” If you’ve never read the story, you should. In the story Pahom is presented with the temptation to acquire more and more land, but Tolstoy never paints Pahom as a greedy Ebenezer Scrooge type. Instead, at the point of each temptation, it appears perfectly rational, safe, and good to seize an opportunity to acquire more land. The end of all of these individual choices, however, is finally destructive.

Secondly, these risks are a good illustration of the ethical challenges posed by innovation that I articulated yesterday in my exchange with Adam Thierer. These risks would be socially distributed, but unevenly and possibly even unjustly so. In other words, technologies of radical human enhancement (we’ll allow that loaded descriptor to slide for now) would carry consequences for both those who chose such enhancements and also for those who did not or could not. This problem is not, however, unique to these sorts of technologies. We generally lack adequate mechanisms for adjudicating the socially distributed risks of technological innovation. (To be clear, I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this problem.) We tolerate this because we generally tend to assume that, on balance, the advance of technology is a tide that lifts all ships even if not evenly so. Additionally, given our anthropological and political assumptions, we have a hard time imagining a notion of the common good that might curtail individual freedom of action.

Lastly, the Transhumanist vision assumes a certain understanding of happiness when it speaks of the promise of “super well-being.” This vision seems to be narrowly equated with the absence of suffering. But it is not altogether obvious that this is the only or best way of understanding the perennially elusive state of affairs that we call happiness. The committed Transhumanist seems to lack the imagination to conceive of alternative pursuits of happiness, particularly those that encompass and incorporate certain forms of suffering and tribulation. But that will not matter.

abolish sufferingIn the Transhumanist future one path to happiness will be prescribed. It will be objected that this path will be offered not prescribed, but, of course, this is disingenuous because in this vision the technologies of enhancement confer not only happiness narrowly defined but power as well. As Gary Marcus and Christof Koch recently noted in their discussion of brain implants, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict.” Those who opt out will be choosing to be disadvantaged and marginalized. This may be a choice, but not one without a pernicious strain of tacit coercion.

Years ago, just over seventy years ago in fact, C.S. Lewis anticipated what he called the abolition of man. The abolition of man would come about when science and technology found that the last frontier in the conquest of nature was humanity itself. “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis warned, and when it did a caste of Conditioners would be in the position to “cut out posterity in what shape they please.” Humanity, in other words, would become the unwilling subject of these Last Men and their final decisive exercise of the will to power over nature, the power to shape humanity in their own image.

Even as I write this, there is part of me that thinks this all sounds so outlandish, and that even to warn of it is an unseemly alarmism. After all, while some of the touted technologies appear to be within reach, many others seem to be well out of reach, perhaps forever so. But, then, I consider that many terrible things once seemed impossible and it may have been their seeming impossibility that abetted their eventual realization. Or, from a more positive perspective, perhaps it is sometimes the articulation of the seemingly far-fetched dangers and risks that ultimately helps us steer clear of them.



A Nineteenth-Century Chinese Perspective on Western Technology

In 1895, the French poet and critic, Paul Valéry, took a stroll along the seashore with a friend from China. In Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western DominanceMichael Adas recounts the ensuing conversation:

“Reversing many of the standards by which Europeans had criticized the Chinese and other non-Western peoples for decades, Valéry’s Chinese friend declares: ‘You have neither the patience that weaves long lives, nor a feeling for the irregular, nor a sense of the fittest place for a thing, nor a knowledge of government. You exhaust yourselves by endlessly re-beginning the work of the first day.’ Westerners, he continues, worship intelligence as if it were an ‘ominpresent beast’ and place no limits on what they seek to know. The Chinese, by contrast, ‘do not wish to konw too much’ becasue they understand that ‘knowledge must not increase endlessly. If it continues to expand, it causes endless trouble, and despairs of itself. It halts, decadence sets in.’”

Adas’ footnote cites as his sources a 1970 translation of Valéry’s work by Roger Shattuck and Frederick Brown. Interestingly, the late Roger Shattuck, an accomplished literary critic, later authored Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, a fascinating study of a contrapuntal theme in Western culture.

Adas’ account continues:

“Again reversing one of the stock nineteenth-century censures of Chinese civliation, he points out that though most of the Europeans’ inventions were first devised in China, his people knew tha they should not be developed so far that they ‘spoiled the slow grandeur of our existence by disturbing the simple regularity of its course.’ The Chinese invented gunpowder but used it only for firecrackers. Despite their present humiliations and present setbacks, his people are better off ignorant than stricken with the European’s ‘disease of invention’ and their ‘debauchery of confused ideas.’”

Given recent discussions about the importance of understanding how human beings have historically adapted to new technologies, it’s good to be reminded that non-Western cultures have their own history of relating to technology.

The classic work on the history of technology and science in China is, of course, the monumental series spearheaded by the late Joseph Neeham, Science and Civilization in China.

Page from the Diamond Sutra, Tang Dynasty (868). Earliest surviving printed book according to the British Library.

Page from the Diamond Sutra, Tang Dynasty (868). Earliest surviving printed book according to the British Library.