Catching up with the brave new world

opinion May 31, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

The neck-snapping speed of technological change is tearing the wheel of human destiny from our grip

In the not-so-distant past, people craved technological updates. Today it can feel strange if two days go by without news of some cool innovation, or at least some great, jaw-dropping potential for one. 
Technology is pushing in all directions, and changing human life as fast as the landscape flies past outside the window of a speeding car. At first we braced and held tight, but now we’ve become quite used to it.
Barely an eyebrow was raised when we were told that Harry Potter’s “invisibility” cloak is on track to becoming a reality. A few years ago journalists would have chuckled at the thought of a computer writing breaking-news stories. Few are laughing today, now that software is churning out those articles. 
How about taking a virtual-reality “vacation” in the comfort of your home? Well, we know this will be available – once the software becomes cheap enough.
For the younger generation, the idea of being part of an online “multiverse” – with an infinite number of you’s and me’s – is no longer science fiction. Will the world soon stop relying on oil? Very likely, if the powers-that-be can figure out a way to switch power sources without upsetting global politics and the economy. Will cars fly? It’s just a matter of time (they’re already driver-free). Will 70-year-old men be considered still young? Probably someday soon.
In short, “What comes next?” is not as important as “What do we do with it?” Technology is not only changing the way we live, but also the way we think. Caught in its mutating grip are religious faith, social life and other fundamental issues like career, family and friendship. The leaps can be dizzying, leaving us suddenly facing vistas of strange new possibilities.
Culture shock is mild compared with “technology shock”, although sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between the two. The former involves a relatively slow physical journey from one “world” to another, while the latter can hit you in your own home if you take your eyes off the ball for just a brief moment. In the not-so-distant past, a person emerging from a 10-year coma would still find himself in a familiar world. If he were to fall unconscious today and awaken in 2019, he would likely see commercialised moon travel, society almost devoid of obese people, and the beginnings of a “human-memory-for-sale” business.
And the pace of change will only get faster and faster. 
The potential danger is obvious. Not so long ago it was relatively easy to handle, say, cloning because we had little else to worry about. It’s different today, and will be very, very different in the near future. That the world is debating the pros and cons of “killer robots”, which, like cloning, must now be seen in the light of their suitability, not just possibility, is good news. At the very least, we know what’s coming.
But we can’t be so assured about the “big picture”.
“Whatever can happen will happen” goes one school of thought. Nothing, they say, can prepare us for the surprises technological progress has in store. Others counter with examples of what can happen if the world remains passive and ignorant in the face of change. They cite the “Frankenstein” technology of nuclear power, whose awesome benefits come with awful destructive potential.
Technology is the tool that shapes human life, but like a knife, it cuts both ways. And the sooner the world learns to handle that knife properly, the better.