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Three visions of technological progress


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In the Boston Review, Meghan O’Gieblyn reviews three recent books on technology and progress: The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Man and Machine by Malcolm Gay, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff, and The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom by John Gray. The wisest of the bunch seems to be John Gray’s philosophical reflection on just how little technology alters human nature. While the other authors exhibit varying degrees of optimism about the ability of technology to help humans overcome age-old problems like mortality and resource scarcity, Gray argues that technology has and will change us much less than we think. Instead, it will only amplify our tendency towards greed, violence, and blind utopianism. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom argues that many of us adhere unwittingly to a modern form of Gnosticism. This worldview, which predates Christianity and was eventually absorbed into it, sees the universe embroiled in a cosmic war between good and evil. The world was created by a false and evil god, but humans contain within them the fragments of a divine essence that come from the true god. Each person exists in this liminal state but can achieve spiritual communion and godhood through acquiring knowledge, or gnosis—the key that unlocks those divine sparks.

Among the modern-day Gnostics, says Gray, are the techno-futurists who believe that technology will usher in a state of spiritual perfection and emancipate us from our mortal forms. Many have contributed to this dubious gospel, but its chief prophet is Ray Kurzweil, who for several decades has been heralding the day when technological enhancement will facilitate unlimited knowledge, transforming humanity into an immortal and essentially divine super-race. “As we evolve,” he told an audience last fall at Singularity University, “we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world—it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”

Of course, there is a fundamental problem in ascribing to evolution any guiding telos, let alone one so mystical. As Gray put it several years ago in the Guardian, “Progress assumes some goal or direction. But evolution has neither of these attributes.” This idea is reprised in The Soul of the Marionette, but the book furnishes a darker interpretation of figures like Kurzweil. In the preachments of Humanity 2.0, Gray hears echoes of Lenin’s socialist utopia and Hitler’s superior race. Each of these ideologies, Gray contends, shares a vision of improved humanity coupled with willful blindness toward our enduring errors—“the inherent and incurable flaws of the human animal.” Though Gray is not religious, his views on human nature owe much to the Augustinian and Calvinistic visions of total depravity: an essence that is forever coming up short against the ideal.

Image: A subject engages in “brain painting” using a brain-computer interface.