Thursday, February 7, 2008

Forging Ahead Regardless of What Ought Not Be Done

A group of entrepreneurial biologists has announced that they have replicated the DNA of a bacterium. They claim that this feat brings them close to creating an artificial life form, apparently while ignoring a critical question: "should we?"

In a speech to Calvin College in 1998 (according to the YouTube date), Neil Postman asked his audience to consider certain questions before accepting a new technology (of which biotechnology is a part). He first implored us to ask, "What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?" Then, upon discerning the problem, we are to ask whose problem is it? According to Postman, this question is intended to provoke determination of who will benefit from the solution to the alleged problem and who will pay for it. He did, in fact, assert that "new technologies always produce winners and losers" (emphasis mine).

Among the last of his questions is that of an analysis of motive. Postman asks, "What sort of people and institutions acquire special economic and political power because of [this] technological change?" After all, "America's greatest radicals have always been our entrepreneurs", warns Postman, and "citizens should keep an attentive eye on such people". His point is likely not one of anti-capitalism, but is simply that motive is an important consideration because it can give us a clue as to the degree which the far-reaching consequences have or have not been considered.

While Postman's system of questions does not deal explicitly with morality, an argument of this type nevertheless begs consideration. An ethical dilemma is not always purely moral, as it can have logical and pragmatic red flags raised as well. This does not diminish the importance of the moral argument; it merely adds more branches to evaluate.

There are always long term consequences for short-term decisions, and it does not follow that something necessarily should be done merely because it can be done. We must therefore be slow to accept the latest trend or technology, and quick to be critical of enthusiastically heralded "advancements". Society is frequently tempted to let the many promises of a new technology cloud any judgement, but new technologies must instead be approached with the understanding that great risk and potential loss may far outweigh any proclaimed gains.


Daniel said...

Hmm, good post. Very thought provoking. And excellent questions to be asking about technological "advances" (advancing from what, and why?) from Postman.

Sarah Scott said...


Postman's work provides an absolute treasure trove of wisdom!

A good friend of mine gave me a great quote from Leon Kass yesterday that applies here:

"Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder"

Sarah Scott said...

And by the way, I would possibly still have not heard of Postman had it not been for Dr. G!

Daniel said...

Yes, we can credit Groothuis for an abundance of personal life-alterations, such as hating culture/TV/celebrity worship, and most importantly, always having carmex ready for application at a moment's notice. :)