The Many Faces of Technology

The Weekly Standard | Published on

By Eric Cohen

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Technology in its many guises was a central theme of President Bush’s State of the Union address–from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to the production of revolutionary energy technologies to the need to ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. In other words: Technology as mortal threat. Technology as political liberator. Technology as moral danger.

The mortal threat is obvious enough: the prospect of terrorists and terrorist states armed with weapons of mass destruction. But it is not clear, from this speech, whether the administration is serious about confronting that threat where it now looms most darkly–in Iran. And it is not clear whether even the most serious administration can avert a coming age of nuclear attacks. Despite the few thousand casualties on September 11 and in the Iraq war, America is not used to either suffering or inflicting death on a mass scale. We still believe that our sophisticated weapons will end wars quickly, leaving only the messy project of cleaning up (or “winning the peace”). And we still believe that we can defeat our enemy with precision strikes, rather than bear the moral weight (or guilt) of killing ruthlessly in order to avert the triumph of evil men with apocalyptic aspirations. But Iran may soon force us to confront the tragic limitations of our arsenal: the zealous enemies of civilization may require acting in ways that make civilized nations uncomfortable. The cause of freedom may require the use of terrible force. It did in the Civil War; it did in World War II; and it might again in World War IV.

The liberating powers of technology are obviously more pleasant to discuss: how digitizing medical information can lower costs and reduce errors; how continued research can finally end the scourge of AIDS; and how alternative energies can break our “addiction to oil,” freeing us from doing business with unsavory regimes and preventing long-term environmental problems without crippling the short-term economy. Every American should applaud these efforts. Every American rightly embraces a certain measure of techno-optimism–a belief in the greatness of science and in the reservoirs of human creativity to solve our worst problems. But we should also be careful not to lose ourselves in techno-utopianism and to become unserious about the many problems that technology cannot solve.

On energy, it is simply unrealistic to imagine that technology will liberate us soon from the need for oil, including oil from the Middle East. Every president since Richard Nixon has talked about the coming age of “energy independence,” and every president has, alas, been hopelessly wrong or so far ahead of his time that such pronouncements are at best useless and at worst deforming fantasies. American wealth, and thus American power, now depends on the oil economy. This is an unpleasant fact, but a fact nonetheless. Without question, we should aggressively pursue new sources of energy–though nuclear energy brings its own security hazards, while “wind” and “switchgrass” are not likely to bring us rapidly into the post-oil age. But even as we pursue new sources of energy, we cannot give in to the illusion that technology can liberate us from the unpleasant world of power politics. And we cannot deny the fact that our attention to democracy in the Middle East is not rooted in idealism alone, but also in the practical obligation of preventing a major, misery-causing disruption in the first-world oil economy.

On healthcare, one applauds the culture of innovation that will hopefully cure many terrible diseases. But such innovation will almost certainly raise costs, not reduce them. We will live longer, healthier lives, but we will also devote a larger percentage of our resources to resisting disease. At the same time, our extended period of healthy life will almost certainly be followed by an extended period of debility, including the increased prevalence of diseases like Alzheimer’s. And this presents us with the real health care crisis now looming: the surging costs of long-term care for the disabled elderly, and the effect of long-term care on our culture and our families. On this great challenge–the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid–the speech offered nothing, only the call for yet another presidential commission. And so far, the only major Medicare initiative–the prescription drug bill–proves the point: more innovative medicines available to more people at significantly increased cost, making the looming entitlement crisis only that much worse. This is a problem that technology, alas, cannot solve.

Which brings us to the final problem of technology–the danger of seeking medical progress by immoral means. On this score, President Bush should be admired both for his forethought and his moral courage–calling for a ban on all human cloning, a ban on the creation of human embryos solely for research, a ban on fetal farming, a ban on the creation of man-animal hybrids, and a ban on the buying, selling, and patenting of human embryos. For the past four years, America has engaged in a great debate about the future of biotechnology, but so far Congress has done nothing. The most egregious types of experiments remain unregulated, unrestricted, and on the immediate horizon. By putting bioethics front and center–indeed, as the centerpiece of his “culture of life” agenda–President Bush sought to teach the nation a moral lesson: that progress should not come at any cost, and that good science needs to be morally good in order to be good for the country.

Of course, American strength depends on American optimism. We are a nation of inventors, believing that the imagined possibility will become real in only a matter of time. We are a nation of idealists, believing that good will triumph over evil, and that the oppressed of other nations deserve the same liberties as we do. And our idea of the free society is the progress-seeking society–the society of math and science education and nanotechnology and sufficient wealth for all families to live private lives of dignity. On all these fronts, President Bush should be applauded for his faith in progress. But the best part of his speech came when he invoked the virtue of the dead American soldier, dying (and killing) courageously for a cause–freedom–that is hardly assured. Virtue, not technology, is the real key to American victory and American greatness. And the problem of living virtuously in the high-tech age–as warriors against terror, as caregivers for the old, as inventors of new medicines–is the problem that looms largest in the days ahead.

Eric Cohen is editor of the New Atlantis and resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.