Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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Technology & Altruism

Technology is building bridges between people on opposite sides of the globe, but it is also building ever stronger walls between neighbours. Some people are surrounding themselves with modern technology while paying little attention to the needs of others. Others use technology to better understand their fellow man to overcome physical distance, establishing relationships of mutual solidarity around the globe.

Whether driving a car, planting a bomb, sending a spam E-mail or signing a contract, technology extends our realm of influence. Usually, however, it does not extend the senses that we rely on to give us feedback about the consequences of our actions. An unfortunate dynamic of modern technology is that it often works through competition; many technologies benefit early adopters at the expense of non-adopters. Ancient man must have been satisfied when he learnt how to kill mammoths by driving them over precipices. This seemed to offer great benefits - until everyone else adopted the technology, driving the mammoths to extinction.

The inherent competition of weapons technologies will need no underlining to anyone familiar with the nuclear arms race. Could anyone say that the development of nuclear weapons has made their lives safer? Social critics such as Ivan Illich and Neil Postman pointed out that this phenomenon is not confined to weapons; many technologies develop a momentum of their own which takes them beyond the point of counterproductivity at which they become self-defeating. Much of the convenience they offer occurs by inconveniencing others. Cars for example, offer increased speed and comfort of travel at the expense of non-drivers, who find that cities are traffic-choked, unhealthy places no longer designed for pedestrians. Televisions were sold as devices to educate, inform and entertain, whilst computers were ushered into businesses amidst talk of 'paperless offices'.

Considerable effort is required to defy exhortations to the contrary and reflect altruistically on how each new technology would affect not only our lives but also the well-being of others. Difficult enough on a personal level (if I get a car, how much extra work will I have to do to keep it running? Are there enough cars on the roads already? What about Peak Oil?...), it is utterly impossible to grasp the full effects of technologies on a wider level. Some technologies, such as nuclear power require a large scale of organisation, and pose potentially catastrophic risks even to those who do not adopt them. Others, such as solar or wind power, are inherently local in their operation and allow people to run their own risks.

Limited liability corporations of the 19th century operated within a very strict legal framework which regulated their ability to undertake risky ventures and spread the gain from doing so throughout society. Last century, however, that balance shifted as an ugly nexus of political and economic power formed. An elaborate framework of intellectual property laws was built that stressed the primacy profit maximization (even over the safety of the public or the natural environment) and the media was used to misinform the public and stifle discussion of their wider risks of new technologies. Meanwhile, deregulation removed most of the frameworks designed to protect people from the selfish short termism of capitalism. Since over 50% of all US scientists are funded (directly or indirectly) by the military, and most of the rest are funded by large corporations, it should be no surprise that most modern technologies do little to boost our capacity for altruism.

One often unregarded technology is the money system itself. As the engine for most of their development, it is key to understanding the properties of modern technologies. It is often mistaken to be neutral in operation, but in fact its anonymity discourages altruism in favour of exploitative rent-seeking, whilst its centralization encourages undemocratic, large scale undertakings. We are working on an alternative, developing a non-zero sum, distributed economic system.

Modern technology is changing mankind as much as it is changing our planet. What we do and say, even how we think is being subtly changed by our machines. The logic of the all pervasive computer is inspiring a cold, mechanistic view of the world that emphasises objective reality and lead us away from the subjective realities of our emotional and spiritual sides. Mass production denies our uniqueness, while communication technologies and the ubiquitous internet and disrupt our sense of place.

Maintaining a faith in technology to solve our probloems is increasingly difficult in light of its lengthening history of creating them. Nevertheless, even after US Senators were attacked with weaponised anthrax from US government labs, they continue to permit the bioengineering of new superviruses, allegedly for defensive purposes. Leaving aside such obvious folly, many technologies such as coal, CFCs or DDT that originally appeared benign have lead to unexpected and increasingly serious problems, so to rely on technology alone seems likele to prove vain and self-destructive. Instead, we believe it is time to realise the inner truth that all of life is interconnected and interdependent. Even as it homogenises our culture, technology is interlinking our lives. A global consciousness is arising amongst a younger generation who have more shared experiences and viewpoints than their ancestors could ever have had. The internet, air travel and even photos of the earth from space all affect how we see ourselves. The increased range of action given us by technology means that no group of people can be wholly immune from danger whilst others are at risk. More and more of mankind's problems require that we abandon selfish competition in favour of exploitative altruistic cooperation if we are to survive and prosper.

Technology could be exploited by a financial elite to insulate themselves physically and mentally from their fellow man — to refuse to engage with them as individual people, but to deal with them as if they were numbers on a computer screen — to 'objectify' them and treat them with the cold, calculating, impersonal logic of the machines on which 'developed' societies appear to have become dependent. Such an elite would use increasingly advanced machines to guard their doors and to effectively 'edit out' the materially disadvantaged from their lives. Locked in an escapist world of digital culture, denying their essential connection to others and to the natural world, they would probably squander the world's natural resources in a series of high technology resource wars.

Alternatively, if people can make the change from fear to love, technology can help us all to meet both our physical needs and our quest for meaning and autonomy. Its effects should give us cause for hope. Of the modern technologies, the internet stands out as a positive influence on the people of the world, putting us in contact with one another, helping us understand the magnitude of the common challenges we face.

Ultimately, mankind's salvation does not lie in more or faster machines. All technology is, in the words of the poet Thoreau, but 'improved means to an unimproved end'. As long as we are at war with one another and with the world around, the ability to act faster and more effectively will not help anyone. Increased technology has however made clearer mankind's dilemma as expressed by Martin Luther King: 'The choice is not between non-violence and violence, but between non-violence and non-existence.'

DownloadsTitleAuthor(s)        Date       Reference
 Towards An Optimistic Future Hardin Tibbs 2000 Sep
 Aric McBay and George Draffan on Technology and Power Aric McBay & George Draffan
 Conscience, The Rule of Law & Technology Ivan Illich 2000Canadian Broadcasting Corporation The Corruption of Christianity 2
 On The Non-Neutrality of Technology Gerry Mander

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NetFuture: Technology and Human Responsibility
A non-profit making site that challenges some common preconceptions about the value of technology in modern society. Particularly thought provoking for anyone who uses computers heavily.

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