Technology policy

Riding the Techstorm

An ethicist's failed case against permissionless innovation.

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A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control, by Wendell Wallach, Basic Books, 336 pages, $28.99

Let me put my predilections on the table: I think technological progress is going way too slowly. Where are the cures for cancer, the self-fertilizing perennial crop plants, the medical nanobots clearing clogged arteries, the 3D-printed on-demand clothes, the cheap solar power, the longevity treatments, the self-flying cars? I don't suffer from future shock. I feel future glee, and I want more of it.

The Yale bioethicist Wendell Wallach does not feel future glee. In A Dangerous Master, he worries that our "incessant outpouring of groundbreaking discoveries and tools" are a rising "techstorm" that will soon be "dangerously beyond our control." The question at the heart of his book is whether "we, humanity as a whole, have the intelligence to navigate the promise and perils of technological innovation."

In case you're wondering how "humanity as a whole" is supposed to navigate: "In a democratic society," Wallach writes, "we—the public—should give approval to futures being created." So everyone gets to vote on which innovations can proceed, and how fast. What could possibly go wrong?

As is often the case with such plans, a more top-down proposal lurks behind the democratic rhetoric.  Wallach wants technological "Governance Coordinating Committees" to guide policy makers and the public. Distinct committees would "comprehensively coordinate the development" of different scientific fields and "oversee the industries that [each] field creates." In other words, they would function as gatekeepers, giving permission (or not) to the rest of us to develop and use technologies. Without apparent irony, Wallach writes that "Moderating the adoption of technology should not be done for ideological reasons"—as though the idea of "moderating" progress is not itself ideological.

So why does Wallach want to keep technology under control? He makes his case by pointing to genetically modified crops, nuclear power, fracking, ozone depletion, and eucalyptus trees. Parsing this list does not inspire confidence in Wallach's analytical acumen.

DangerousMaster
Basic Books

Regarding genetically modified crops, Wallach claims that their "long-term effect on humans is unknown." He does admit "there is a lack of substantial evidence that GMO foods are any more risky than conventional foods." Well, yes. In fact, every independent scientific organization that has ever evaluated current biotech crops has found them safe for people to eat. Would a Governance Coordinating Committee come to a different conclusion?

Discussing nuclear power, Wallach cites a German case control study that found that the leukemia rate for children under age 5 was twice as high for kids living within 5 kilometers of a nuclear plant. He does not mention the French study launched in reaction to the German results, which found no such correlation. Fracking, Wallach claims, has "led to groundwater contamination." This is misleading: Groundwater contamination has occurred when well-casings are defective, but not as a result of fracking itself.

With ozone depletion, Wallach may seem to be on more solid ground. As he correctly notes, no one could have foreseen that the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used as propellants in spray cans would erode the stratospheric ozone layer that blocks harmful UV light from the sun. But here he has proven too much: Because no one foresaw the problem, no Governance Coordinating Committee charged with overseeing the spray-can industry would have blocked HFCs in advance.

Instead, the chemicals were banned by international treaty after their deleterious effects were identified. The ozone example demonstrates that human progress proceeds by trial and error, not the foresight of elite gatekeepers. We deploy new technologies, then ameliorate problems as they arise.

And eucalyptus trees? Wallach thinks they show the risks of releasing genetically modified organisms into the natural environment, arguing that it was a mistake to introduce the trees into California in the 1850s. The state's eucalyptus forests, he writes, do "not support many native animals." Except…they do. As the biologist Dov Sax showed in a 2002 paper for the journal Global Ecology & Biogeography, native forests and eucalyptus forests host different assemblages of species indigenous to California, but the forests are nearly identical in overall species-richness.

Looking to the future, Wallach is greatly troubled by transhumanists' desire to freely develop and deploy technologies that enhance our physical and intellectual capacities, including the dramatic lengthening of healthy lifespans. He also worries that artificially intelligent robots might cause technological unemployment. Such anxieties prompt him to ask, "Does the freedom of the individual give a small minority pursuing its goals the right to force on others the radical restructuring of human existence?"

Some people were doubtlessly "forced" to take modern medicines; to light, heat, and cool their homes with electricity; to travel in automobiles and airplanes; to wear factory-made clothing; to leave farms for cities. But for the most part, people exercising their individual freedom in markets choose to radically restructure their existences around these and the panoply of modern technologies. The better question is: Why should fearful status-quo interests get to veto the individual's right to pursue projects they believe will make life better for them, and for other people who voluntarily choose to use them?

Like so many other foes of permissionless innovation, Wallach predicts that accelerating technological progress will increase crises and disasters. But history suggests just the opposite. For all the risks of electricity, automobiles, computers, plastics, vaccinations, pesticides, and everything else that constitutes the vast enterprise of modern technology, allowing inventors and entrepreneurs to take those risks has enormously lessened threats. We know that because we members of modern societies enjoy much longer and healthier lives than our ancestors did, with greatly reduced risks of disease, debility, and early death. It is the "governance" of innovation that is the truly dangerous master.

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  1. Just saw jurassic world preview, reminds me of cambrian genomics. I need a pet dinosaur fast!

    1. What I want to know is; if Musk can invent a 2.5 ton, 196″ long battery-powered car that runs for hours at a “reasonable” price, why the hell can’t I find a 2.5 ton, 196″ tall battery-powered exosuit that runs at any price?

      1. Uh, the flying car must come first.

        1. Does the exosuit fly?

    2. Devil is in the details wrt Cambrian Genomics. Just cause they can quickly generate sequences doesn’t mean they know how to do things like miniaturize TRex.

      1. Why would you want to miniaturize your pet TRex? How will he eat intruders?

        1. Why would you want to miniaturize your pet TRex? How will he eat intruders?

          If you only have one pet mini-T-Rex, you’re doing it wrong.

          1. Killed by a swarm of mini-TRexes is probably worse. I guess I shall concede the point.

        2. It appears that I forgot the period T.Rex…bang the gong.

          1. bang a gong

  2. I’d rather let loose what’s in Pandora’s box than what’s in Hillary’s.

    1. I didn’t need that visual.

      Where’s my mindbleach?

      1. It is Friday. I suggest thechive.com.

    2. I wanna-be Hillary’s intern! Then I can becum famous for being famous, and sell me blue shirt for a killing!

      (And she will say, I did NOT have sex with that SQRLSY rodent!)

    3. The Snuke

  3. Wallach wants technological “Governance Coordinating Committees” to guide policy makers and the public.

    What is wrong with these people? Do they have no knowledge of history at all?

    1. We need Committees to coordinate wheat and coal production too! Oh wait…I think that was tried already..,

      1. +1 Argentina

        1. You know who else thought about trying Argentina?

          1. Your mom?

    2. A series of Theology Coordinating Committees would then follow suit.

      Of course they don’t take history seriously. Those were bad people, whereas in the world they envision, bureaucrats would be well-meaning, mild-mannered intellectuals who would serve the interests of the public via rational analysis.

      Presumably these perfect bureaucrats are too morally upright to respond to perverse incentives, unlike every bureaucrat, politician, or cardinal this side of Marcus Aurelius.

    3. Do they have no knowledge of history at all?

      They know history, but they are somehow able to convince themselves that “this time will be different”. Because, you know, they’re smarter than those other stupid people who’s bogus theories litter history like so much intellectual detritus.

    4. American exceptionism… Every other nation or people that has tried central over-control by the morally or politically superior folks, has failed miserably, but we are AMERICANS, and so, we will get it right!

  4. Is there a more useless field of thought than bioethics?

    1. NONE. I recall how every biomedical engineer at Hopkins had to take an ethics course. I’ll have to go back and talk to some of my old friends to discuss the content of those classes.

      1. I take that back. The grievance studies are more useless. I just strain at the idea of calling them fields of thought.

    2. It doesn’t have to be, but like most academic subdisciplines, it’s an echo chamber of dictatorial minds who would’ve been trying to dictate the ideal square footage of the proletariat’s home 150 years ago.

      1. The average man is somewhat less than 6 foot, by 2 foot, by 1 foot. Therefore the ideal volume of a personal apartment is 12 cubic feet. This is sufficient for sleeping. All other activities shall be carried out in the communal area.

        1. The problem isn’ t the person in their domicile, just give everyone a 12 cu. ft. sphere.

          The real challenge is how to stack the spheres in order to maximize free space.

  5. The Yale bioethicist Wendell Wallach does not feel future glee.

    *sigh*

    Not sure how people get this job? But I’m increasingly finding anyone who refers to themselves as an “ethicist” to be wholly insufferable.

    1. For what it is worth, not all ethics classes, and ethics professors, are bad. In fact, as a former ethics instructor myself, I think there is great value in teaching theories of ethics to students.

      To help an individual understand the difference between deongolgical ethics, virtue ethics, and utilitarian ethics, can invite students to think differently about their daily lives.

      And many students, having been exposed for the first time in their lives, the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, Mills, and others, suddenly see their unformed hobgoblin ideas for what they are. You would be surprised at how many students would walk away frmo class realizing how faulty their conscious is, how falliable “top men” are at deciding right and wrong, and how much many of them care to the humble position that often leads to libertarianism.

      Ethics, as a whole, is not a waste of time for many. Ethcists, as a whole, are not a waste of space. Unfortunatly, the stupid ones always seem to end up on TV…

      1. I have no problem with ethics – I have plenty that I have not even used yet.

        1. Did Bailey just make a joke?

          1. Send an enforcerbot to his cubicle now.

          2. I am more than a bit honored to be sarc’d by Ron. it is a good day to be me.

      2. This. Ethics is fascinating. Even sticking to just the intralibertarian debate can be eye-opening, as we have utilitarians, natural rights theorists, and, lately, moral intuitivists.

        Every time a “bioethicist” pops up, though, it always seems to be a mouthpiece for the precautionary principle and top-down control of every aspect of technology, as though absolute bureaucratic control of innovation did not come at an extraordinarily high price in terms of human life (consequentialism!) or violently interfere with the right of others to live their lives without suffering prior restraint.

        I believe a former Reasonoid might call these people stasists.

      3. And many students, having been exposed for the first time in their lives, the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, Mills, and others, suddenly see their unformed hobgoblin ideas for what they are.

        ^This^

        I didn’t take ethics, but I took a History of Science course that was epistemology-heavy and it was fantastic.

        I was already pretty comfortable with the notions before I got to school, but he started off the class with “Drugs are good… without drugs, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you.” We got a lecture about how our degrees would be worthless. It was one of the better classes I took as an undergrad.

      4. “…deongolgical ethics…”???

        Perhaps a misspelling of “dongological ethics”, which would be the field of study of, when and where can we insert our dongs, w/o becuming un-ethical?

        1. yes, sorry, old work browser doesn’t have spell check. Sorry.

          1. OK, then, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics … I am not up on these kinds of things… Was just having a good time, goofing around, actually, now you made me go and look it up! The word was what I thought it was, but I had no idea what it meant…

            1. Yes yes, that is the one. Good old Kant.

              /sings

              Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was ery rarely stable.

              1. OK, some of it comes back to me… Long time since college for me…

                I am OK with Deontology, although I kan’t say it’s any kind of categorical imperative for me.

                At least it’s not Scientology! No matter how whacked out Kant may have been, he kan’t have been half as immoral or unscrupulous as L. Ron Hubbard! That particular EVIL mo-fo, I have studied up on!

    2. The world’s second oldest profession? Pretty sure that when man figured out how to create and harness fire, there was a tech-ethicist telling everyone how it would be the downfall of mankind and surely cause the next apocalypse within just a few years.

  6. Stupid Progs. They hate creative/destruction in economics, what makes you think they’ll be willing to risk change from technological innovation?

  7. “In a democratic society,” Wallach writes, “we?the public?should give approval to futures being created.” …

    As is often the case with such plans, a more top-down proposal lurks behind the democratic rhetoric. Wallach wants technological “Governance Coordinating Committees” to guide policy makers and the public.

    Funny how shitheads like Wallach are always bleating on about “democracy” and then proposing going full fascist. This guy should go sit on a running chainsaw.

    1. But government is just another word for things we do together!

      1. “Things we choose to do together” is the even more BS quote that I always hear. As if more than 40% of us every choose anything involving government.

    2. Of course he misses that the free market is the best expression of “democratic” approval ever discovered. If people like your ideas, they give you money. If they think your ideas suck, you slither away into bankruptcy.

      1. Free markets aren’t really democratic, though. They are anarchic. Democracy implies that everyone is bound by whatever the majority decides. Anarchy binds each individual by only his own decisions.

        1. Did you see the scare quotes? Did you?!?

        2. It is still democratic in some sense. Generally speaking, most companies don’t survive with only one customer. You have to depend on other people’s demand in order to get many of the things you want.

          Hell, just gerrymander all of those people into one district then BAM! democracy.

  8. obviously this guy’s inventions haven’t panned out so he wants the government to stop others from being a success and pay him whatever limitless amount he needs to make his crap work

  9. Wallach’s claim that “long-term effect on humans is unknown” is true. There are no studies which show the long-term safety of GMOs for humans.

    Anyway, I think it’s necessary to look at technological innovation with a skeptical eye. What Bailey doesn’t tell us is that technological innovation typically brings along with it some undesirable consequences. An increased demand on energy is one. Intensified hierarchy and division of labour are others. It’s called a ratchet effect meaning that innovation leads to greater complexity, not lesser complexity.

    1. And yet this greater complexity still benefits us. In fact, it benefits us more the more complex things get. Just look at the internet. It has worked wonders, yet the average person hasn’t the faintest clue how it works. It might as well be magic, wonderful, useful magic.

      1. “It might as well be magic, wonderful, useful magic.”

        The NSA don’t believe in magic, but they would agree with you anyway.

        “yet the average person hasn’t the faintest clue how it works”

        I don’t see this as a good thing. I’m more sympathetic to Jeffersonian self sufficiency than dependence on an elect group of technocrats. I’m sure there are some Libertarians who agree with me, though probably not on this board.

        “And yet this greater complexity still benefits us.”

        Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you to some extent. The problem is that greater complexity (greater number of nodes and connections) is subject to diminishing returns. Increased road traffic for example can be beneficial, but only to a point beyond which you get gridlock. The F35 is undeniably packed with technological innovations. That doesn’t mean that the F16 isn’t the best choice in some circumstances.

    2. . An increased demand on energy is one. Intensified hierarchy and division of labour are others.

      Oh my god! Increased energy usage means that one is having more of one’s needs met. You want to shiveri in a cave, wearing animal skins hoping to survive another 5 years, be my guest! But hell man, the fact I don’t live that way is in no way a problem. It’s a fucking unalloyed good thing!

      Moreover, the division of labor means more people focusing more of their time at what they enjoy or are good at! Damn those poor peasants having more comfortable satisfying lives, amirite?

      1. “But hell man, the fact I don’t live that way is in no way a problem.”

        You are satisfied with the lot of a tax payer and consumer. That doesn’t make you particularly rare or interesting.

        “Moreover, the division of labor means more people focusing more of their time at what they enjoy or are good at!”

        You’ve never worked in a factory, I take it. Then again maybe you have, in one of the more comfortable layers of bureaucratic middle management, doing what you enjoy and are so good at doing.

      2. Really, tarran? You’re responding to mtrueman? I mean, talk about non-sentience…

        1. Oh shit, look! You don’t excite mtrueman’s fancy! Off to the gulags with you…
          I like the utter derision with which division of labor is treated, too. Apparently the most interesting people are those who… are just like mtrueman. Interesting is just a synonym for identical, apparently.

          1. Goddammit, I responded to him after chastising you for doing the same…

          2. “I like the utter derision with which division of labour is treated”

            The more labour is divided, the greater the need for a bureaucracy to organize it. That Libertarians accept and desire greater bureaucracies and stratification so uncritically is a little counter-intuitive.

            1. “The more labour is divided, the greater the need for a bureaucracy to organize it.”

              The impressive thing is that you’ve been on the board this long and you’ve failed to absorb even one iota of wisdom. The above quote is the equivalent of creationism, where you’ve observed order and then assumed an intelligence creating it.

              Markets are emergent, self-organizing phenomena. They are undesigned, undesignable, and ordered according to the price system, which is a reflection of economic reality analogous to a thermometer. That you think bureaucrats have any role to play in telling a thermometer how to do its job indicates how little you’ve learned from a centuries-long liberal tradition.

              1. “Markets are emergent…”

                But I’m talking about labour and the division thereof. I’m not talking about markets which are a different kettle of fish altogether, as you point out.

                ” That you think bureaucrats have any role to play”

                Call them managers, supervisors or foremen if you prefer. It’s all the same to me.

                1. google “define:bureaucracy”:
                  bureaucracy: a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.

                  I’m sorry, but a division of labor, and working for someone who works for someone, who also works for someone, does not, in fact, imply bureaucracy.

                  1. Call them managers, supervisors or foremen if you prefer.

            2. The more labour is divided, the greater the need for a bureaucracy to organize it. That Libertarians accept and desire greater bureaucracies and stratification so uncritically is a little counter-intuitive.

              Us libertarians are not opposed to having bureaucracies, we are opposed to government bureaucracies. Why? Because government bureaucracies are not constrained by the discipline the market imposes through competition.

    3. And we will *never* know the long-term effect on humans until we’ve actually been using it for the long-term. So where’s the argument against it? That there’s some slight chance that it might possibly end up being bad for some of us? That’s good enough to kill off almost every known technological development we’ve ever had, good and bad.

      1. “That there’s some slight chance that it might possibly end up being bad for some of us?”

        Who knows how slight the chance is? Nobody until the matter is studied. I disagree with the sacrifice of some unfortunate few for the greater common good. This is utlilitarian, not libertarian.

        1. Nobody is being sacrificed. If you don’t want to eat “GMO food”, go right ahead and don’t eat it.

    4. Wallach’s claim that “long-term effect on humans is unknown” is true. There are no studies which show the long-term safety of GMOs for humans.

      There are no studies which show the the long-term safety of fruits whose names start with the letter “p” for humans either.

      There don’t have to be because it’s a ludicrous question to ask.

      Anyway, I think it’s necessary to look at technological innovation with a skeptical eye.

      Look all you want; don’t tell me what I can and cannot use.

      An increased demand on energy is one. Intensified hierarchy and division of labour are others.

      These are undesirable… how?

  10. I really Really REALLY hate people like this. They are on the same par as statists in general; when I think of how much more useful the $7T government spending would have been in private hands, without the incredible government bureaucracy gumming up the works and misdirecting it, let alone all the private spending to deal with the federal spending …. it makes me foam at the mental mouth. So much progress lost forever due to statist timidity.

    This technophobia is just part and parcel of the same craven timidity. Theirs are the true crimes against humanity. Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Pale in comparison. They merely killed a hundred million people. Technophobes and statist bureaucrats have squandered progress forever, progress which could have solved all the problems they whine about, long ago, if they had just gotten out of the way, even if they had just been bums under a bridge instead of contributing instead of defeacting on everyone else.

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  17. When he says “beyond ‘our’ control”, he is using the royal “we”. Meaning, it is slipping beyond the control of scientifically illiterate, half-witted, Luddite philosophers.

    Good! Working as intended!

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