The Defining Challenge of the 21st Century
Does Technological Progress Make Humanity Better?
Technological progress is accelerating. The very nature of technological progress, especially of information technology, is that it is accelerating itself, and everything it is connected to. Moore’s Law states that the speed of computer processors doubles every 18 months — which means that we are, undoubtedly, living in a time of exponential technological progress. All this technology comes with unprecedented power. We could use it to destroy the whole biosphere, or to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. This situation sheds light on a question we cannot afford to ignore: Does technological progress make humanity better?
Technological progress enhances our potential impact, and if that is good or bad is dependent on our morality and the degree to which we are capable of collectively living up to what we determine to be good.
- Good is what reduces the suffering and enhances the well-being of conscious creatures
- The universal morality that arises from the first premise can be discovered through compassion and rationality. Some values are better than others because they are more aligned with the reality of the cause-and-effect patterns of well-being. Materialistic values — like material success (the amount of stuff you own) — are not as good as spiritual values like mindfulness. Not because they are intrinsically worse, or because Jesus said so, but because above a certain threshold more stuff won’t make you happier and overconsumption contributes to the destruction of the planet and all life on it. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be experienced internally, brings your focus into the present moment, helps you understand the nature of your mind, contributes to your mental health and enhances your compassion — which enables you to live a more moral and happy life.
Part 1: Has the situation actually improved?
Technology and the accompanying means of production dramatically changed our relationship with nature. We once used to hunt and gather, looking our resources in the eye, connected to nature, directly exposed to the consequences of our actions.
Today we live in houses that are far away from the places where our food is grown or killed, where the material of our batteries comes from and where the creation of our clothing kills people and destroys nature. The 1-click-conveniences of modern life make it easy to make every purchase that advertising preaches to be the holy grail of happiness, and then distract ourselves so fully that we don’t really care about any consequence.
Indeed, we cannot separate cultural evolution from technology. Human progress is inextricably connected to technology. Without the printing press, there is no newspaper, without newspapers, there is no advertisement. Without television, there is nothing to turn the advertisement industry into the engineers of society’s perception of a good life, no export of Hollywood’s ideals into the world, no rise of consumerism as the world’s dominating religion.
So, if we look at the bottom line of well-being throughout time, and humanity’s impact on it, we come to realize that the technological progress of the last three centuries did not improve the situation of the biosphere. At the same time, our understanding of reality evolved — partly thanks to technology — to the point that we can now more and more process the complex reality we live in and understand well-being well enough to optimize for it.
Part 2: Is technology likely to make humanity better in the future?
Argument: Technology can be used to better understand well-being.
Technology can help us better understand well-being itself on a biological level, as well as the cause-and-effect patterns that create it. Especially neuroscience, Machine Learning and the fact that billions of us are connected to more and more devices that can collect more and more data about our well being is extremely promising.
Argument: Technology speeds up the evolution of markets — and at some point the dynamic of the market will cultivate morality.
The market is made up of human beings, and human beings want to be happy. Happiness is the inextricable result of morality. Only behavior that is aligned with universal morality will produce true happiness. The market will therefore, inevitably, knowingly or unknowingly, demand products and services that align the individuals values and behavior with universal morality.
Argument: Technology enables the evolution of consciousness, values and behavior on a global scale.
The real magic, however, lies in the unprecedented opportunity to spread understanding of universal morality, to spread these ideas, to spread the products and services that are built on a foundation of universal morality, to billions of people all over the world. The internet, whatever its current shape may be, enables us to evolve human consciousness on a global scale. The best ideas in the world can suddenly shape the reality of every member of the human family. And, by default, those best ideas will include living and consuming in a way that’s in harmony with nature, thereby contributing to the well-being of other species.
If the story about the actual nature of reality and well-being suddenly becomes more compelling than religion, many of the world’s problems will vanish. Where once bias and ignorance dominated, clarity and compassion can now emerge. If we then manage to empower people to live up to their values — to do what’s good for themselves, and for the world — we might be around for some more time.
Technological progress did not make humanity better so far — measured in its effect on the well-being of all conscious creatures. Nonetheless, it does have the potential to change that, by enabling the alignment of human behavior with universal morality.
Given the inescapable nature of the force that technology is, a science of morality becomes one of the most pressing challenges for humanity — a necessary step towards a universal morality that is grounded in reality. Only from there we’ll be capable to find a shared understanding of what is good, and based on that, of how we should use technology.
If we don’t pull that trick off, our species will continue to cause a lot of suffering for ourselves and all other creatures on earth — and eventually cease to exist.
On the other hand, if we can pull it off, we’ll be able to use the enormous power of technology to do more good than anyone can imagine. The shared efforts of our species and technology can recreate and even transcend the harmonious paradise that earth once was.
Let’s do the best we can.