Any new discovery or invention which has a potentially revolutionary effect on people’s lives is always looked at with suspicion. We fear The Other in things as well as in human interlopers.
It is not surprising, therefore, that people at the turn of the century thought that the telephone was the end of the cohesive, respectful society of the day. It would, they said, destroy the carefully-woven fabric of the community because women would no longer gossip over the back fence, friends would no longer drop in for coffee, and the personal contacts which assured social adherence and avoided larger disputes – engagements, arrangements, negotiations, and settlements – would disappear. More importantly the very character of America – farms, small town, and tightly-woven, friendly communities -would disappear. The country would become more impersonal, less concerned with the lives and well-being of others, selfish and enclosed.
Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip
The fear of course was unfounded, and the telephone expanded personal contact, facilitated social dialogue, and connected family members like never before. The telephone facilitated commerce, increased efficiency, and became the centerpiece of rapid economic expansion.
Americans were wary of ‘The Horseless Carriage’ and ‘The Iron Horse’ for similar reasons. The car and the train would disrupt a very pastoral, settled, and community life. They were not unlike the telephone – instruments of social reconfiguration which would change the settled, predictable, and comfortable life of America forever. Smoke-belching, banging, and rattling trains disturbed the tranquility and integrity of the Great Plains. They cut through the heartland, disturbing its natural rhythms. Connection to the land was not disrupted or disordered by the horse, just modified. The natural order of things – plants, man, and animals living together – remained intact. The train, early critics said, would destroy this harmony, one that had existed forever.
The Coming of the Iron Horse, Greenwich Workshop
The car was even more disruptive because as an urban phenomenon, it affected many directly and quickly. It frightened animals and children, rutted roads in new ways. Until the days of Henry Ford and his assembly lines, cars were royal carriages, their drivers as indifferent to the peasants they knocked into the gutter as the soon-to-be-headless courtiers of Louis XVI.
The Terminal, Alfred Stieglitz
The nature of society is conservative. Once things are settled and in their place, life can be efficient and predictable. When change does occur, it can be easily accommodated. When it is radical, it is frightening. A new breed of horse on the market is still a horse, and while it might be faster and more temperamental, it still runs on oats and four legs. Gas lighting improved on candlelight, but it’s flickering flame was still familiar. Electric lights were still incandescent and familiar (a flame within a bulb), but electricity itself was another matter altogether. Zeus and Yahweh flung thunderbolts. The ancient Zapotecs worshiped the gods of thunder and lightening, appeased them, and prayed to them.
We are still afraid of nuclear power, and as much in opposition to it as early Americans were to the telephone and Horseless Carriage. There is no doubt that nuclear energy will be the fuel of the future. It will be more universal than coal and oil ever were. It will power cars, planes, factories, computers, watches, and homes. It will be so ubiquitous and safe that no one will give it a second thought. Yet because Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still so recent; and because the first images of nuclear power were linked to Armageddon-like destruction, many people cannot imagine living at comfortable terms with it.
Two truisms apply. First, technology always trumps morality. People’s morals are flexible and are quickly adapted to new ways of negotiating the world. Rarely have any moral or ethical concerns ever stopped or even delayed the universal spread of any new technology. Second, when the cat is out of the bag, there is no way to put it back in. Even before a new technology is on the market and only in the laboratory or in field trials, its expansion is all but guaranteed.
There are a number of new technologies which are going through the familiar and predictable process of design, development, opposition, marketing, and universal acceptance. The remarkably quick diversification of information technology has been perceived by many as a threat very similar to the telephone. Society will become increasingly atomized. Whatever personal and human social glue that remains from earlier eras will no longer stick. We will communicate and relate electronically. Love will be mediated, and life will become virtual, and dispassionate. Without the dynamics of ‘real’ human interaction, we will lose the tests of faith that bring us closer to God.
Of course none of this is true. The social media have expanded and not contracted our social interactions. They have diversified human relationships thanks to hyperlinks and quick connections. In a virtual world where mind and computer have been electronically linked, relationships will take place in any imagined venue and according to every personal fantasy. We will find partners and God a lot more easily, and our relationships will be far more productive and fruitful.
Big data and cookies are scary propositions, say opponents. Soon government and business will know all about us, and our individual liberties compromised. We will live in a frightening 1984 world of Big Brother and the autocratic state. While there is no doubt that the contract between State and citizen will have be reviewed and reconfigured, the ability to manipulate vast amounts of data will provide a more rational, logical, and objective basis for decision-making in business, foreign affairs, and economics; not to mention in the marriage market.
The current GMO scare is but the latest of technology scares. Despite the fact that genetic engineering offers more practical rewards than perhaps any technology in recent years, it is roundly condemned in many circles. Like The Iron Horse, say environmental worriers, GMO crops will disrupt God’s plan, destroy the Great Plains, and poison us all.
Nothing of the sort, of course. GM food production requires less fertilizer, pesticide, acreage, and water; and has the potential of feeding billions at a fraction of previous costs. While doom-sayers clamber to build seed banks and fight Monsanto, agriculture is quickly and permanently becoming modified and non-traditional. There is no going back. Problems will occur, but they will be solved not by retrieving heirloom seeds from vaults beneath the Shenandoahs, but by other technologically-engineered means.
The latest moral panic began only a few days ago (April 2015) when Japanese scientists reported that they had successfully modified the genes of a human embryo. The implications of this discovery are clear and truly revolutionary. Human reproduction will no longer be a random event. Parental consumers will be able to choose from a catalogue of DNA choices from Michael Jackson to Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. As long as celebrities are willing to profit from the sale of their genetic codes; and as long as custodians of the estates of the dead can find ways to open the DNA of the deceased to the public, the sky will be the limit.
As in Rule #2 above, the genetic modification of human embryos is out of the bag, and there’s no going back; so Rule # 1 will go into effect and people will rejigger their moral compasses to point to the new North. We will be quite happy to have a child of our choosing rather than a product of random selection and the nasty bits from Great-Grandfather Albert and his renegade brother.
Political conservatives are conflicted about radical social change. Religious fundamentalists among them feel that new technologies are subverting God’s plan and are sinful and wrong. Others, however, understand that the there is no such thing as progress. Human nature in all its self-interested drive will always govern events and history will endlessly repeat itself; so new technologies like democratic or autocratic regimes come and go. Societies continue to adapt, reconfigure, and remake themselves in remarkable ways.
Political liberals are more fundamentally conservative and consistently so. Progressives have arbitrarily donned the mantle of stewardship over the land, the environment, and human society; but they believe in progress only on their terms. The fight for the environment comes because of a profoundly conservative belief in the status quo. Change in energy production and use will come, progressives say, but only if managed carefully and judiciously. They howl at GMO foods and embryonic research not because of issues of faith, but because of the supposed predation and venality of capitalist interests.
In any case, the world will soon live in a nuclear age, a virtual world, and one in which the very basic principles of life, reproduction, and death will be drastically and irretrievable altered. The cat is out of the bag; and we are already adjusting our moral compass.