Samstag, 14. Oktober 2006

Joy of Communism?

Bill Joy most definitely is not a communist.

But, when you try to grasp the approach of communism towards society on a purely abstract level, it is an effort to subject mankind (being that mankind is the highest -known- form of life, one could also say: subjecting life) to rationality.
Rationality, however, is a strategy that works fine for individuals and even for societies, when they try to achieve tangible goals: produce computers, planes, cars etc.
To a certain (lesser) degree it even works to attain more abstract objectives: education, health etc.

Communism was an effort to consciously construct a society that would make people live happily ever after. This was not exactly the Marxist idea of how communism develops in history (Marx was assuming that the road towards a communist paradise was the inevitable course of things). But of course, on the practical level, communists were trying to construct the desired kind of society.

It didn't work, and a lot of valid reasons can be given as to why it could not possibly work. But the bottom rationale behind all other reasons is simply the fact that it is impossible to superimpose rationality to life as such.
All we can say for sure about life as such is the fact that it has shown, so far, a direction: acceleration has been the name of this game of the pace of evolution.

William Nelson Joy (generally known as Bill Joy) thinks - with good reasons - that this acceleration may become dangerous for the existence of our species.
Therefore, in his famous essay "Why the future doesn't need us" (magazine "Wired", April 2000), he has put forward ideas fostered by a kind of technological pessimism that you would expect to find with some conservative-minded European thinkers rather than with any of those supposedly optimistic and progressive Americans. He is, in short, suggesting that we put limitations on our research in the areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics. However, much as he himself will probably not see it in that light, this too is a way of trying to direct the future development of mankind on a very high level from the outside - with that very limited amount of rationality that humans, being inside life, can acquire with even superhuman effort.

Imposing limitations (as we are already doing, to my chagrin, for instance here in Germany to genetic engineering) is easy; the problem is that the people in charge of such decisions would have to impose wise limitations.
It is tempting here to make fun of the (lacking) wisdom of politicians, but, quite frankly, I think even they are (and their intelligence is) better than their (its) reputation. On the other hand, even a scientist with an IQ of 200 or higher could not possibly foresee every conceivable outcome of any individual restriction on research (if they could, the game of chess could be reduced to a mathematical operation).

Let us propose the argument on a less abstract level, though. Bill Joy is talking about the nuclear arms race, and how this has endangered the existence of mankind. In other words, he is assuming that it was something bad, that should have been prevented by the insight and ethical commitment of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

But have the consequences so far really been more negative than positive? What would have happened if there had not been a mutual nuclear deterrent between the USA and the USSR? Most likely, in my opinion, we would have seen a third World War long ago, and, even without atom bombs, with more destructive effects than even WW II.
However, the consequences of a non-nuclear world would have been much more far-reaching.
Without the competition between the systems of market driven economy and a planned economy mankind might not have reached our present state of knowledge and economic achievement.
On the other hand, without the seemingly "mad" arms race communism might still rule in Russia and many other parts of the world.
None of us can know whether and in which way nuclear arms have played a part - positive and/or negative - in these developments.
What we tend to do, is to take a look at direct effects (real or conceived), and we are not very good at anticipating even those.

Rather than (in this case) rely on Thoreau (whom Bill Joy repeatedly quotes), I would put my trust in the deep insight of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his drama "Faust", Goethe makes the devil characterize himself as:
"Part of that force which would / Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good..../ I am the spirit that negates." (Emphasis added.)

The invention of nuclear arms may well have been some such devilish device that in the end (that is, up to now at least) turned out to achieve more good than bad.

Or let's go back in history and let us pretend, just for sake of this particular argument, that the gunpowder has been invented by the monk Berthold Schwarz.
Couldn't he have foreseen, at least to some extent, how much havoc his invention would wreak? How much misery and destruction it would cause, killing countless numbers of soldiers and civilians and destroying their abodes, workshops, factories, transportation systems etc., making the Western civilisation conquer much of the world and nearly extinguish the indigenous population?
What should his ethical choice have been? There is no doubt that all decent and intelligent persons would argue for, push him towards or even force him to destroy his invention and obliterate any information about it.

Luckily, people in the 13th century (or whenever the gunpowder was actually invented) were - not necessarily less ethical, but at any rate - less far sighted, and just let things happen. Wars and all: were it not for the invention of firearms, our civilisation might still persist in the stage of feudalism.
In a very inspiring article "Der Knall der Moderne. Mit Moneten und Kanonen. Innovation durch Feuerwaffen, Expansion durch Krieg: Ein Blick in die Urgeschichte der abstrakten Arbeit" the German (unorthodox) Marxist Robert Kurz reverts the classic Marxist lore of how capitalism is responsible for war and gives some very convincing reasons as to why the wars waged with firearms have led to the development of capitalism and thereby modernity as the present state of technology and economy.

Naturally all of us would rather have seen modernity brought about without the sufferances of countless wars.
But it seems that here we have one of those rare cases where we can actually make a (limited) historical test as to what would (not) happened, if ... .

Jared Diamond informs us, in his talk "HOW TO GET RICH"(P. 5), held in 1999 to the club of "Digerati" (not some obscure folks, but the creme of the crop of today's technological elite), how in Japan (!) in the 17th and following centuries the development of firearms was halted because it threatened the dominance of the Samurai and the whole feudal system.

We might not even be discussing this topic or anything else on any internet today, if Japan had continued to develop the firearms which it first got acquainted with by the Portuguese and by the year 1600 had made into "the best guns of any country in the world" as Jared Diamond says. The Japanese might well have colonised America instead of the Europeans, and history might have taken a completely different course.

So, in the name of Karl Popper, let us not become - even well-meaning - enemies of the open society.

There have been other suggestions to install some form of benevolent dictatorship to replace our type of open society.

Most certainly, this is not what Bill Joy has in mind. But not only technology may be "Pandora's Box". Restrictions applied to academic freedom may very well have the same effect.
Only that we will never know it, because we'll never have seen the other side.

And, finally, there is one more - and hopefully compelling - argument to let science and technology take its course.

Bill Joy, no doubt, is a highly intelligent man with an incomparably wider overview of the present state of science and technology than I have or will ever be able to attain.
Nevertheless, even he completely excludes our pressing environmental problems, of which the foreseeable shortage and eventual depletion on non-renewable resources will probably be the most devastating.

What good will it do to us having stopped the development of seemingly dangerous technologies, if we are doomed to be catapulted back into the early history of primitive tribalism simply by the lack of those resources?

Personally, I am not very optimistic that, say, nanotechnology will help us out of the resource crunch. But our present day technology, or any "saving" or invoking of the buzz-words of "sustainable economy" or "sustainable development" won't help either.

We simply cannot (without terrible consequences for almost every human being) go back.
This is not what Bill Joy suggests or has in mind, but that is the most likely outcome of any halt on research and development on the technological front-lines. Mankind must continue on its path of Faustian risks and achievements, which our Western civilisation has set on tracks.
And, I'm sure, it will. If we Westeners are afraid and unwilling to proceed, the Chinese or the people of India will do it. Mankind will not be any safer for it, but the Western civilisation will be out-competed with its own devices.

This is definitely not the type of development which I personally would like to come about.

P. S.: Bill Joy's article "Why the future doesn't need us" seems to have been widely discussed (and his theses criticised). I have not read any of this discussion and therefore my arguments may well be repeating things that have already been said.
However, I feel that the arguments against any restrictions on the freedom of research and technological development cannot (especially in Europe) be repeated too often.
It should also be noted that no meaningful separation between "freedom of research" and "freedom of technical development" is possible. Quite apart from the necessary economic basis and stimulus, science needs ever more advanced technical instruments, and nobody can tell beforehand whether this or that "dangerous" technology may not one day be the door-opener to completely unforeseen scientific discoveries, which in turn lead to stupendous new technologies, which ... etc.

Textstand vom 12.10.2008. Auf meiner Webseite
finden Sie eine Gesamtübersicht meiner Blog-Einträge.

Other articles in English:

"The (b)rat in the box at the ultimate lever?" (environment)

"False Teachers in and on our Environment?"</ (environment)

"THE ICEBERG READING OF AN ICEBERG LECTURE" a review of the book "Globalization and its Discontents" by Prof. Joseph Stiglitz on my website "Drusenreich - Teil 3".

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