Posts tagged “Technology

Moral Progress turns hostile against Technological Progress

Headline: Cure for deafness a reality as scientists make animals hear again… and promise first human patients will be treated in a “few years”

First commenter:

Am flabbergasted! How does the power of media continue to conjure such nonsense passive ideologies to raise money for further research sickens me – anyone even the stone deaf can feel or even SEE the lorry approaching! (It’s not that small!) These monies should and can be better invested in the global recession and life threatening illness. Dr Ralph Holme of the RNID has no concept of being deaf so does not represent us all. We should all embrace the universal benefits of being deaf such as sign language which brings us all together in many aspects. Please stop using us to pave your paid role. Being deaf enriches my life so stop selling us short with lame cites such as it “eroding my quality of life” – you have no right at all. Nothing about us without us.


Moral and Technological Progress 2

It’s difficult to question the progress of technology and science. However, during the aptly named Progressive Era, the inexorable march of sci/tech became confused with the inexorable march of moral progress. The two shapes of time—moral and technological progress—became interlinked. Looking back at this interlinkage, i find much to admire in its resultant philosophy. I don’t agree with it entirely, of course, but it’s better than the progressivism of today. A Cathedral cleric writes about it disapprovingly:

It is a Whiggish temptation to regard progressive thought of a century ago as akin to contemporary progressivism. But, befitting the protean nature of the American reform tradition, the original progressives entertained views that today’s progressives, if they knew of them, would reject as decidedly unprogressive. In particular, the progressives of a century ago viewed the industrial poor and other economically marginal groups with great ambivalence. Progressive Era economic reform saw the poor as victims in need of uplift but also as threats requiring social control, a fundamental tension that manifested itself most conspicuously in the appeal to inferior heredity as a scientific basis for distinguishing the poor worthy of uplift from the poor who should be regarded as threats to economic health and well-being.

So, while progressives did advocate for labor, they also depicted many groups of workers as undeserving of uplift, indeed as the cause rather than the consequence of low wages. While progressives did advocate for women’s rights, they also promoted a vision of economic and family life that would remove women from the labor force, the better to meet women’s obligations to be “mothers of the race,” and to defer to  the “family wage”. While progressives did oppose biological defenses of laissez-faire, many also advocated eugenics, the social control of human heredity (Leonard 2005b). While progressives did advocate for peace, some founded their opposition to war on its putatively dysgenic effects, and others championed American military expansion into Cuba and the Philippines, and the country’s entry into the First World War. And, while progressives did seek to check corporate power, many also admired the scientifically planned corporation of Frederick Winslow Taylor, even regarding it as an organizational exemplar for their program of reform. Viewed from today, it is the original progressives’ embrace of human hierarchy that seems most objectionable. American Progressive Era eugenics was predicated upon human hierarchy, and the Progressive Era reformers drawn to eugenics believed that some human groups were inferior to others, and that evolutionary science explained and justified their theories of human hierarchy.

It sounds to me like the progressivism of the Progressive Era had yet to become one-eyed. Scientific and moral progress were coupled together, which meant that, for a brief moment in American history, one ideal kept the other’s excesses in check. This explains people like Margaret Sanger, who believed in the moral progress of racial equality but also realized that, empirically, the best way to achieve racial equality was through serious eugenic policies for blacks.

Today, in practice and in reality, moral and scientific progress are completely de-coupled. This explains people like [insert random progressive here], who believe in the moral progress of racial equality but have no empirical foundation for bringing it about, and so resort to a magical defensive tactic (“institutional racism!”) to explain why the good magic hasn’t happened yet. Today’s progressives are often outright hostile to notions of scientific progress.

Nevertheless, despite the reality, in today’s progressive and popular imaginations, moral and technological progress still are one and the same, inextricably linked. This is an epiphany I had while teaching class today. I overheard some students talking, and they seemed to reject a right-wing position as quickly and thoughtlessly as though they were rejecting the use of horse-and-buggy as a means of transportation to tonight’s sorority party. “Oh, people just don’t think that way anymore” or “We’ve moved beyond that kind of philistine thought” or “That is so how my grandfather talks!” As though notions of sovereign borders were as quaint as Ptolemaic cosmology.

Moral and technological progress are two non-overlapping time-shapes. The latter is empirically observable, the former is either a fiction or a temporary reprieve from Hobbesian violence safeguarded by high-trust civilizations. In the American Progressive Era, they were coupled together, with interesting and not entirely unsatisfactory results. Today, we operate only with the Progressive Era’s belief in moral progress, but this belief is, among the progressive elite, de-coupled from a concomitant belief in scientific and technological progress. No more checks and balances. The one-eyed, headlong pursuit of the Moral Prize hurtles us toward Left Singularity.


Two Shapes of Time: Moral vs. Technological Progress

Nick Land’s unfolding series The Shape of Time—well worth the read, like all of Land’s multi-part essays—quotes John Michael Greer at length in an attempt to summarize the various ‘time shapes’ with which the Occident has ordered time and understood its place in the unfolding expanse of it. Land, following Greer, identifies two major shapes: the Augistinian and the Joachim.

The former is the Christian time shape, beginning with Creation and the Fall, ending with The Last Day and Paradise. Everything in between—that is, secular history—is merely the muddled middle through which God and Christ lead the elect.

The Joachim time shape, on the other hand, is equted with the contemporary progressive ordering of time. Greer describes it:

To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two.  He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.

What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it — and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages — was that it was a story of progress.

Yes, a story of progress, but almost certainly a story of moral progress.

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The progressive time-shape—an ordering of time which denies the existence of feedback loops, regression, cycles, a complexly but systematically enforced sustainability—has today developed conceptually along two disconnected axes: the moral and the technological.

The first is exemplified by radical, millennial Protestantism and its belief in the perfectability of mankind. The ordering of time along an axis of ever-perfecting moral progress was the explicit assumption of John Noyes and other 19th century North American utopian Christians; it is the implicit assumption of the progressive Left in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is given its clearest form in Martin Luther King Jr.’s gnomic apothegm: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The axis of time stretches in one direction; its purpose is predominantly moral; and its terminal point is the moral perfection of human beings. The discourse of the progressive Left constantly reaffirms this sense of universal purpose.

However, the ordering of time along an axis of ever-expanding technological progress has little to do with the time shape of moral progress. Ray Kurzweil is the obvious exemplar in this case. The first chapter of The Singularity is Near explicitly orders the history of time according to Six Epochs, each representing a more advanced stage of knowledge and/or technological progress than the epoch that came before it: Epoch One: Physics and Chemistry. Epoch Two: Biology and DNA. Epoch Three: Brains. Epoch Four: Technology. Epoch Five: The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence. Epoch Six: The Universe Wakes Up.

KurzweilEpochs

This time shape is given its clearst form in the idea that “humans are the minds through which the universe comes to know and marvel at itself.” Humans with the highest IQs and most advanced technology are obviously in the best position to further travel along this arc of technological progress toward singularity.

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Those who order time according to the shape of Moral Progress rarely have any affinity for those who order time according to the shape of Technological Progress. And vice versa. They see time expanding toward very different (though, I suppose, not mutually exclusive) goals.

My personal preference is obviously for the latter time shape: technological progress. I am only concerned with moral progress insofar as vice leads to social disorder and instability, which are not optimal for the progress of knowledge and technology. I have, for most of my adult life, been a firm believer in technological progress; even in my nominally Leftist days, however, I was skeptical about the existence of moral progress. As a neoreactionary, I outright deny it.

In general, good evidence exists for accepting the one time arc but denying the other. Moral progress is a blatant absurdity. Slavery is as rampant today as it was a thousand years ago; wars and rumors of war never cease. The idea that the species can be improved in some way, as Cormac McCarthy said, is a false idol, and those who worship it make their lives vacuous and corrupt. My rejection of progressivism is ultimately a rejection of the belief in moral progress; it also results from the belief that those who try to push the world along a time arc that doesn’t actually exist are usually the ones pushing it, at various times and places, into the social disorder and instability they seek to obviate.

Conversely, technological progress is a blatant reality. Isn’t it? Science would look like magic to human populations from just a few hundred years ago. Diseases have been eradicated or made easily treateable. A thouand years back, humans hadn’t made it across the Atlantic Ocean; now we fly over it in a few hours; hell, making it to the moon isn’t too much trouble . . .

That is to say, making it to the moon wasn’t too much trouble at one point. Today, NASA can’t even put a person in low-earth orbit.

Technological progress has clearly occurred, but its continuation is not inevitable. In hindsight, this should be an obvious point. The success of 20th century science has led me to be more optimistic than history warrants. And I’m not even talking about the collapse of Rome. That regression was relatively minor compared to regressions on longer time scales in deep history. At some point, a population of archaic hominids found themselves stranded on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Over the course of the next ten thousand years, their brains shrunk. And then shrunk some more. They continued to use basic tools, but they were destined never to advance like their distant cousins who stayed in Africa and Europe. As Razib Khan puts it here: “I can believe that a local adaptation toward small brains, Idiocracy-writ large, occurred. Brains are metabolically expensive, and it isn’t as if the history of life on earth has shown the massive long-term benefits of being highly encephalized.”

Regression. To a Westerner in 2013, the notion of regression is frightening, nearly horrific. In most dystopian visions, things regress, but somewhere someone retains high-tech knowledge and skill. Earth in Elysium may be one giant Mexican city, but the whites, Indians, and Asians on Elysium itself have advanced closer toward Singularity. In Wells’ vision, the Eloi are docile illiterates, but the Morlock still know how to run the machines.

A global regression, on the other hand, means that everyone has forgotten. Lost knowledge of the ancients. My modern bias tells me that the ancients didn’t know anything worth knowing in our age of science, but maybe that’s not true. Regardless, if contemporary knowledge is lost, then our distant idiot ancestors will have lost the knowledge of the ancients.

If we take Greer’s and Land’s thesis seriously—that any time shape positing an Arc of Progress is seriously problematic—then we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that a technolgoical Elysium is as unattainable, or, at least, as unlikely a goal as a moral Utopia. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a futurist. One can only hope that the complex cycles of time always come around to this same place again. If Science, Technology, and Reason are transient, humanity can always look forward to their return.


Chinese Logographs vs. the Latin Alphabet

In my series of posts on Islamic science (the point of which was to begin a discussion about political and intellectual climates that have been, in history, most conducive to scientific and technological progress), I made the following statement about the importance of the printing press to Europe’s scientific and industrial revolutions:

Europe industrialized first because Europeans figured out how to bring theoretical knowledge together and put it to work for material, practical ends . . . The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were made possible by neither applied technology nor pure science but by a generative relationship between both, a relationship enabled in great part by the printing press and an increased circulation of ideas.

. . . Islamic science failed to systematize its knowledge across disciplines and never bridged what today we call the pure/applied science gap. It’s probably fair to suggest that this systematization never occurred because the Muslims lacked an adequate means of circulation. Seen in this light, the printing press was perhaps the most important pre-Enlightenment invention—whichever culture developed that first was bound to systematize its fragmented knowledge first.

It was pointed out to me that the Chinese had invented movable type printing much earlier than Gutenberg. Indeed, Bi Sheng invented the world’s first true printing press in 1040 AD (“true” in the sense that it used movable types instead of wood or ceramic blocks, both of which were fragile and/or re-produced whole pages instead of characters). In the 1200s, a similar press was invented in Korea. So why didn’t East Asia industrialize? Why didn’t the printing press lead to an increased circulation of ideas in the Orient? Surely, by the time Europe began to awaken from its slumber, the Chinese had likewise accumulated enough practical and theoretical knowledge to make modern science and technology possible. They had the knowledge; they had the press. What went wrong?

The printing press was never widely adopted in China or elsewhere in the Orient. One major reason it was never widely adopted is that printing with Chinese characters is exceedingly more difficult, cumbersome, and expensive than printing with the Latin alphabet. The former would have contained around 20,000 characters; the latter contains 26 letters. In other words, alphabetic writing systems lend themselves to movable-type printing; logographic systems do not.

In practice, a single font scheme for early European printing presses required about 100 characters. And according to this fellow from Utrecht University, by the middle of the sixteenth century, highly profitable printers were already ordering font schemes that had 100,000+ types (for various special characters, including a’s and b’s, et cet.). However, huge numbers of types could be produced in Europe because smaller sets (100 or so, as I said) had already been produced and found to be extremely profitable for the printer. Chinese printers never had a chance to experiment and test the market with small type sets; for them, movable type printing was a massive and expensive undertaking from the very beginning. Also, Gutenberg had invented, along with the printing press, a hand mould which made the production of type matrices extremely easy. No such method for creating Chinese types was ever invented, in part, I assume, because Chinese characters are just so much more intricate than Latinate letters.

Another problem for Chinese writing was (is) that their logographic system is open-ended. As Steven Fischer succinctly explains in A History of Writing:

Each new word in the language automatically requires a new grapheme in the system. In contrast, a ‘closed’ alphabetic system, like the one underlying the Latin script, can phonetically reproduce every new word with a very small inventory of letters.

Even if China had experienced something similar to the scientific revolution, it might have been difficult for printers to ‘keep up’ with the constant flow of new symbols coming from the scientists and their new words, each of which would require a new type. And without a method for creating new types quickly and inexpensively, it wasn’t exactly a safe economic bet for any Chinese entrepreneurs to go into printing.

According to the same scholar I linked earlier, printing was never widely adopted in the Islamic world for two very different reasons. First, printing in Arabic script was outright banned in the Ottoman Empire until the mid-1700s (minority groups, such as the Greeks or Armenians, could apparently print in their own scripts, but that practice never became widespread, either). Second, even after the ban, Islamic scholars were purists about their calligraphy. The Arabic writing system, like the Latin one, is an alphabet, containing only 28 letters and thus suited for movable type printing. However, Arabic letters ideally run together, in cursive fashion; for most of Islamic history, not writing the alphabet in cursive is considered a bastardization of the writing system. During the printing press’s first century, there was simply no way for printers to print without separating the letters. Well, fuck that! said the Islamists. We just won’t use printing presses, then.

Brilliant.

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The invention of the printing press made possible the increased circulation of ideas necessary for the scientific and technological revolution. However, had Europe’s writing systems not been alphabetic—had they been comprised of hundreds or thousands of characters instead of just 26—then printing would have been a much riskier economic undertaking, and we probably wouldn’t have seen an explosion of printing presses opening up all over Europe. Goodbye, circulation of ideas.

It goes without saying that, throughout history, no one in Europe or China met in synod to decide once and for all what their writing systems would be like. No one took votes on whether or not to adopt an alphabet, a syllabary, or a logographic system. From the neoreactionary perspective, however, the story of the European and Chinese writing systems—and their contributions, or lack thereof, to the adoption of print culture—provides an obvious lesson: cultural systems do matter when it comes to cultural advancement and enrichment. Not all cultures are equally equipped to advance. The East Asians had higher average IQs, but they didn’t have an alphabet. The difference between adopting an alphabet and adopting tens of thousands of individual symbols was, in part, the difference between who industrialized first.

Civilization is difficult, fragile. A million things have to go right for it to emerge and a million more have to go right for it to advance. It’s never just the one thing. Even writing systems matter.