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Civilization Vs. Human Desire
A few years ago I posted on Kevin Kelly on the Unabomber:
The Unabomber’s manifesto … succinctly states … the view … that the greatest problems in the world are due not to individual inventions but to the entire self-supporting system of technology itself. … The technium also contains power to harm itself; because it is no longer regulated by either nature of humans, it could accelerate so fast as to extinguish itself. …
But … the Unabomber is wrong to want to exterminate it … [because] the machine of civilization offers use more actual freedoms than the alternative. … We willingly choose technology with its great defects and obvious detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues. … After we’ve weighted downsides and upsides in the balance of our experience, we find that technology offers a greater benefit, but not by much. (more)
Lately I’ve been reading Against Civilization, on “the dehumanizing core of modern civilization,” and have been struck by the strength and universality of its passions; I agree with much of what they say. Yes, we humans pay huge costs because we were built for a different world than this one. Yes, we see gains, but mostly because we are culturally plastic – we let our culture tell us what we want and like, and thus what to do.
And yes, contrary to Kelly, we mostly do not choose how civilization changes, nor would we pick the changes that do happen if we could. As I reported a week ago, our usual main criteria in verbal evaluations of distant futures is if future folks will be caring and moral, and since moral standards change most would usually rate future morals as low. Also, high interest rates show that we try hard to transfer resources from the future to ourselves. And if we could, we’d also probably make future folks remember and honor us more, and not forget our favorite art, music, stories, etc.
So, if we could, we’d pick futures that transfer to us, honor us, preserve our ways, and act warm and moral by our standards. But we don’t get what we’d want. That is, we mostly don’t consciously and deliberately choose to change civilization according to our preferences. Instead, changes are mostly side effects of our each trying to get what we want now. Civilizations change as cultures and technologies are selected for being more militarily, rhetorically, economically, etc. powerful, and for giving people what they now want. This is mostly out of anyone’s control, and yes it could end very badly.
And yet, it is our unique willingness and ability to let our civilization change and be selected by forces out of our control, and then to tell us that we like it, that has let our species dominate the Earth, and gives us a good chance to dominate the galaxy and more. While our descendants may be somewhat less happy than us, or than our distant ancestors, there may be trillions of trillions or more of them. I more fear a serious attempt by overall humanity to coordinate to dictate its future, than I fear this out of control process.
By my lights, things would probably have gone badly had our ancestors chosen their collective futures, and I doubt things have changed much lately. Yes, our descendants may not share today’s moral sense, or remember us and our art as much as most of us might like. But they will want something, often get it, and there may be so so many of them. And that could be so very good, by my lights.
So I say let us venture on, out of control, into the great and perhaps terrible civilization that we may become. Yes, it might be even better if a few forward looking elites could at least steer civilization modestly away from total destruction. But I fear that once substantial steering-abilities exist, they may not stay modest.