Technology moves faster than ethics

Tech changes out-pace spiritual foundations for their ethical use. Photo: AP

NEW YORK, May 9, 2013 - Tech changes out-pace spiritual foundations for their ethical use. 

Tech changes affect three areas. Individuals acquire greater independence and reach.  The locus of power shifts accordingly. And traditional buffers between discordant groups dissolve.  These developments call for new structures for moral development, and the radical reassessment of human organization. Science fiction writers are doing far better reflecting on change and what is needed than those presumably responsible to govern or lead for the sake of positive human welfare.

Virtually all current systems have been rendered obsolete by tech developments of the last 15 years.  We race with these obsolete systems down the path toward a truly broken world with each passing day; politics, media and entertainment, education, security, and economics and finance, and more.  All of these in their current form arose in the past era marking the rise of the nation state, and of “modern” industrial technology.  They simply no longer correspond to the world in which we now live.

Take education.  With virtually every possible piece of information near instantly available, 100s of 1000s of 22 year olds graduate each year each with 100s of 1000s of dollars of debt?  Whatever on earth for? So they can be oppressed by narrow ideologues with questionable personal ethics and morals?  Or to spend hundreds of hours indulging in bacchanalia or desperately, lonely, and painfully trying to avoid it?  What exactly goes on at an undergraduate school that is worth 120,000 dollars? 

Right now 250,000 students enroll in MBA programs each year. 100,000 MBAs graduate each year.  This two year post graduate degree alone costs between 60,000 to 100,000 dollars.  So why is the global economy falling apart?  Is there something a 100,000 dollars times 250,000 people “learning” didn’t buy? 

Take politics.  The US, 2012 presidential campaign cost over 2 billion dollars! Did we really need two billion dollars of something to help us pick someone for a four year job?  What was given us that was worth 2 billion dollars?  In 2012 the US federal government spent 3.6 trillion dollars.  How is it possible to spend 3.6 trillion dollars in a single year? Is it really the case that it costs 3.6 trillion dollars a year to run the United States government?

How about international relations?  These seem to be going OK?  Not much to worry about?  US, Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Japan, Syria, South China Sea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the list goes on.

These lists and data are not here to spread doom.  They are here to point to an across the board brokenness in human organization that is not being addressed. 

The institutions traditionally looked to for leadership – political leaders, business leaders, educational experts, the “media,” and other fields are the problem.  They should no longer be considered “experts” and “leaders.” They are our current ancien regime wholly lacking the capacity to introduce the radical shift in human consciousness and social self awareness needed to meet the path breaking changes of the past 15 years. 

These are “leaders” and institutions that arose in a bygone era, that of the arising of sovereign nation states and of industrial technology.  These systems no longer apply, and are obsolete.  The power elite in each of these areas cling to power for its own sake, and bankrupt our world by doing so. Without a deep inquiry into the changes I describe, matters will continue to deteriorate toward apocalyptic style social disintegration. 

The tech changes of our day have altered the power, independence, and range of the individual, they have realigned the locus and structures of power, and have dissolved buffers between hostile or competitive entities.

On the individual level, Google Glass is the crown jewel of the sea change that redefines individual life in the world.  The potential of the technology brings to the fore the demand that we examine the whole gamut of ethics, morals, and human, social behavior.  But where lies the wellspring that will help individuals meet this technology with a corresponding level of personal self-mastery?  Who will help to see that the massive potential, and the massive threats to privacy, relationships, social behavior and human interaction are harnessed with good intent and a good result? 

Each one of us knows the constant impulse in human beings to be exploitive, vile, greedy, lustful, distracted, and pursuing base vices?  It abounds.  And now upon us will be people in our midst who wear instruments to magnify, expand, intensify, and enhance to dizzying degrees, with instantaneous range and reach, precisely what they are as people.  As sneaky as they already are.  As lustful as they already are. As greedy as they already are.

Is this writing moralist or pessimist?  This simply is what we have around us.  Turn on the TV.  Or sit in almost any casual group of all men or all women.  Do we commonly find lofty dreams of a better world and more wholesome ways? If you do, please take me to these pubs, these construction sites, these locker rooms, these powder rooms.  I want to give these saints my Google Glass eye wear.  I know they’ll put it to good use, and wear them with the dream to make a better world. 

The public discourse around the ethical challenges posed by the introduction of wearable recording/transmitting/researching gear has been fatuous.  Long articles in tech magazines pontificate, don’t wear them in movies.  Don’t wear them in bathrooms.  If you intend to photograph someone, be sure to get their permission first.  Do not record during domestic disputes.  And the assurances, “well you have to speak to tell the Glass what to do.”  Oh?  Not so.  Even before the release of the gear already is the app that bypasses voice commands.  Winky allows you to photograph by blinking.  “Be sure to write Google to tell them to manufacture the gear with a blinking light during recording,” says the Wall Street Journal reviewer.  Huh?  Write Google? 

In no time, all the functions of Google Glass will be in our midst in wholly invisible and wholly undetectable technologies.  Conversation should be about seriously addressing the moral, social, and ethical challenges to life and society that result from this inevitable reality.

The second technological development of the many that warrant deep concern, are unmanned instruments of war, battlefield robots, and drones. 

There is something inherent in human beings, perhaps in all sentient creatures that knows to constrain violence to within the limits of utility and never allow excess, even in self-protection or protection of others.  This is the pressing need to protect the dignity and sanctity of life, both my own, as well as life as the ground of being and meaning.  Over time these inner impulses not to let violence mix with cruelty and excess grew to be systematized in theory and conventions – such as the just war theory, and the Geneva Convention.  These were developed to disrupt the loss of moral mooring when possessed by the consuming force of hatred and rage, or even of noble purpose.

Drones operate in the enormously dangerous zone in which human presence to the taking of life is removed, deadening the conscience and anesthetizing the experience of harm and even of evil.  The development of unmanned killing instruments already crossed a line that threatens not only the history of trying to regulate harm and violence, but threatens our very humanity. We become increasingly able to inflict death on innocents without activating internal sensibility against such horror.

This horrifying and unnerving boundary made possible by technological developments is not being addressed, and already we race headlong toward a new technological development that compounds these very issues to soaring new levels.  The Telegraph’s report on the near readiness of battlefield killer robots introduces the added element that war could be moving toward the state in which robots make the decision to kill, meaning that they are fully unmanned.  The “decision” is based on the data it collects in combat situations.  With this we move from creating desensitized human killers to creating killers fully divorced from human decision making altogether!  Hopefully the staggering ramifications of this are readily grasped by the reader without further illumination.

The elephant in this room, not yet mentioned is religion.

How fun are the wonders of wearing a computer on your eye, self-driving and self-parking cars, banking in your nightgown, and cycling by friends and clicking across hundreds of songs phone to phone.  But the enduing fact is that the area of human life  historically responsible to provide moral and ethical guidelines when technology and progress change the human condition is religion. 

Our powers for good and for evil develop and are enhanced by “progress.” Technology brings us closer together in proximity.  At each axial period when the level of change reaches radical proportions, it was always the force of a religious founder that exerted itself into the midst of the civilization being upended by change.

The lives and words of these individuals, expanded at first through a tiny few followers, eventually to become massive cultural spheres.  These different cultural spheres carried our race forward on parallel tracks. The teachings and the lives of the great religious founders strengthened individual moral vision and fortitude, and gave impetus to visions of greater inclusion, equality, and human dignity.  This work in history is done by whom Muslims call “the prophets known and unknown,” whom Christians call the Messiah, and Buddhists call the Buddha.  Each and all showed us ways to meet the challenges caused by evolving technology and capacity, and each planted in our race a greater capacity for personal and social goodness.

Precious good still comes to us in our time from the great religions.  Humble, faithful believers still give a true anchor in the raging storm.  But the fact is that the great religions whose job it is to guide and shed light were founded on average from 2500 to 1400 years ago. 

We live in an age in which it is comprehensible to be hopelessly out of date in less than two minutes.  Yet we count on moral, social, and ethical guidance  from systems and world views originating millennia ago! We are hoping that spiritual insights from agrarian or pre agrarian realities can speak meaningfully to frightening horizons of ungoverned power surging around us from satellites in space, to the jerk in the next stall, and everything in between.  This is an unreasonable expectation. Religions do not even cooperate with each other.  How on earth can they speak to this intertwined world that current technology has created?

Technology of the last 15 years has redefined individual life and altered the order of human affairs.  The tiny few among us who live with intense spiritual and religious commitments owe the world and its people unbound investment, commitment to development, and working results as trending as anything coming out of Apple or Google.  We are in dire need of a global, trans-religious vision and path that recommends moral, ethical, and visionary life orientation and behavior that corresponds effectively to what the world is now.  Spiritual leaders must engage one another and current reality in ways that are as magnificent, scintillating, and path breaking as the new and wondrous technology that erupts daily in our midst.


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Frank Kaufmann

Frank Kaufmann is Editor in Chief of New World Encyclopedia (a values based, general knowledge encyclopedia), executive director of the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace (an international, interreligious peace organization), founder and president of Values in Knowledge Foundation (a movement to to meet the challenges and undo the harm caused by declining content in the world of  knowledge and information).

Frank Kaufmann's work for peace includes efforts in over 65 countries with successes in conflict ridden and violent environments.

This mission to produce and maintain New World Encyclopedia involves supporting a virtual academy of over 500 international scholars as contributors. 

 

 

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