Science & Technology

Dystopian Fearmongers Strike Again


"Techno-Utopianism" blares a full page ad in the August 28 New York Times. "Now, a terrifying new generation of technologies–from eugenics to robotics–is raising the stakes…When did we okay these?," asks the ad, which was paid for by a conglomeration of neo-Luddite groups calling themselves the Turning Point Project.

Nearly every line in the ad is filled with techno-dystopian disinformation. Hence, automobiles are damned as polluting and for using paved roads. There's no mention of the fact that before cars became standard issue, cities were filled with fetid, disease-causing manure. Or that tens of millions of acres have reverted to pasture since cars replaced horses. Or the benefits of faster, safer travel and trade?

Pesticides are condemned for poisoning food, land, wildlife and water –and for boosting rates of cancer. Ignored is the uncomfortable truth that pesticides have helped make food cheaper, more abundant, and safer than ever before in history. Pesticide-boosted crop productivity has also meant that hundreds of millions of acres of land have been saved from being plowed down. Turning Point can't resist the Big Lie that pesticides are causing a cancer epidemic. But cancer rates increased because of smoking, tanning, and fat consumption—not because of pesticides. (As important, cancer rates have been coming down for nearly a decade, as people change their lifestyles).

To be sure, nuclear energy, another Turning Point bete noire, is costly. But it also safer than many alternatives. For example, far many more people have been harmed by coal mining than by producing nuclear power. Safe waste disposal methods have been developed, but are being blocked by groups like Turning Point.

Turning Point even attacks antibiotics, worrying that antibiotic resistance is "raising new fears of unstoppable pandemics." The anxiety-ridden Turning Pointers forget the truly unstoppable pandemics of a few decades ago that antibiotics helped stop.

Not even the Internet escapes as Turning Point trots out the standard neo-Luddite argument that new technologies compete with old technologies and cost jobs. This argument is simply the moral equivalent of the claim that we must stop electric lighting because it will put candlemakers out of work.

"In today's world, technology is arguably more important than whom we elect to office: shouldn't we vote on technology too?," asks Turning Point (emphasis theirs). Of course, voting on technology means taking choices from the relatively open, win/win arena of markets and limiting choices to the win/lose pit of special interest politics.

Candlemakers will always point out the dangers of electricity ("children could get electrocuted, you know") and lobby politicians to vote against competing technologies, even though electricity is cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than candles. Turning Point may well be right when they say technology is more important than politicians. The real question is, Do we want technological gridlock as well as political gridlock?

Turning Point's ultimate goal is to stampede our society into strangling three promising infant technologies in their cribs–genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. By outlining unrealistic "worst-case scenarios," Turning Point tries to turn these technologies into bogeymen while completely discounting their enormous potential to relieve human suffering, to lift the burden of hard labor, to dispel the fog of ignorance, and to protect the natural world.

No technology is perfect, just as no human baby is perfect. But we don't kill off all babies because a few of them might grow up to be muggers, rapists, or fearmongers. Far from being the enemy of humanity and the earth, modern technology has, on balance, proved itself to be a great boon. If human progress had been halted in 1900, average lifespan would be 40 years, and a huge portion of nature would have been destroyed simply to growing food and fuel.

Such an outcome may be amenable to the folks behind Turning Point. But their ideas are far more noxious and destructive than the various things they inveigh against.