Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.

The Singularity is Not Near

Blah blah blah singularity blah blah machine AI blah blah the world will undergo a paradigm shift, it’s coming, all bow down before the mighty new technologies that will change humanity forever. The problem I have with talk of the technological singularity is not that it doesn’t make sense, and not that I don’t believe that technological advancement is indeed rapid, accelerating, and world-changing, but that we have somehow invented a symbol of vast but actually rather vague significance. I don’t think the “singularity” is a useful idea. I think it’s a buzzword to some, and a religion to others.

For what makes Futurology (capitalization mine) really, actually different than a belief that something momentous will happen in 2012, when the Mayan calendar wraps around? Not a lot, as far as I can tell. And now it turns out that two religious scholars have concluded exactly the same thing, in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Contemporary Religion:

Futurology-as-religion has charismatic leaders, authoritative texts, mystique, and a fairly complete vision of salvation. Futurology is, in effect, a new religious movement (NRM).

Continue reading The Singularity is Not Near

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part III

Everybody thinks they know how their mind works, but they don’t. You can ask someone why they like their boyfriend, or why they chose a job, or whether a book changed their opinion of global warming, and they’ll think about it for a moment and happily give you an answer. But they’re making it up.

The experiments were done ages ago, and the research is still going, continuing to tease apart actual cause and psychological effect. We know now that what people tell us about their own mental processes is quite thoroughly inaccurate. We all believe that we have this magic thing called “introspection” that lets us see what is going on in our own minds, but in reality we don’t. It’s a fictional superpower.

The research on this point is really quite good. It’s not even a new finding, having been understood for at least the last fifty years. And yet this simple but important fact has never quite managed to make it into popular culture.

Perhaps no one wants to believe it.

Continue reading Minds Are Tricky Things — Part III

Biodiesel Hottie

This morning I saw a circus training hottie wearing a tight black T-shirt with BIODIESEL written on it in silver bling sequins. This, I thought, is how you combat global warming.

Several friends have written to me about my piece on Gore’s Sustainable Electricity Challenge, trying to answer the question of how you make climate change mitigation sexy. One person argued that it’s all about associations. When people think of oil they need to think of black goo, the agony of war, evildoers and open sores. When they think of sustainability they should imagine pretty young people, green trees, crystal waterfalls and shining futures. This idea of associations is at the core of classic marketing and public relations techniques. Hence, the Biodiesel Hottie.

I mentioned this to a friend and he instantly translated the central meaning: “preventing the collapse of civilization gives me a boner!”

Well, yes. That is sort of what a hot body in biodiesel bling says. From this ridiculousness he argued that real social change had to include deep education at the primary and secondary school level. I agree completely — but we still need marketing, because, near as I can tell, people don’t actually base the vast majority of their opinions on critical thinking. This should not be shocking.

Continue reading Biodiesel Hottie

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part II

In a fit of recursion, I am going to begin my discussion of the scientific understanding of the mind by bringing up a piece of psychology research into how people perceive neuro-imaging. This not only gives a taste of what different types of research can be like, but reveals something rather disturbing: merely adding a brain scan image or two makes people more likely to rate an article as scientifically sound. This gets us into questions of what is and isn’t a good reason to believe any particular research conclusion, which is ultimately what I want to talk about in this series of articles.

At the present time there are basically two technologies that can give us some idea of the activity of a working brain: positron-emission topography (PET) and functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). They both have important limitations in terms of resolution, what they actually measure, and many other things besides, but they’re also pretty amazing technologies. They produce detailed 3D maps of the “activity” of a whole brain, which are often represented like this:

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) image

Continue reading Minds Are Tricky Things — Part II

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I

I’ve been reading the literature on neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, psychology and such for a long time now, and the temptation to write about what’s new is overwhelming. There are so many exciting things being learned, and equally there are so many subtle problems of how we can know anything at all about the subjective world. But before I can bombard you with chewy words like “affect” and “epistemology,” I need to explain why any of this matters. It matters because people matter.

It is a difficult and ancient fact that we as conscious beings don’t live in the real world. There are boundaries to what we know and what we can know. I am right now sitting on a couch in my house in Oakland, California. Across the ocean, there is a woman sitting on the floor of her Tokyo apartment. I have never met her, but she is just as much a part of the world as I am. Not my world though. There seem to be boundaries to the things I perceive. Figuring out those boundaries and how things get into and out of them is the process of figuring out me, and everyone else too.

Continue reading Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I

Americans Have Only Their Own Culture

The whole world watches Hollywood movies. I once found X-Men 2 on cable in Oman, the sex and violence airing between the preaching Imams. The whole world reads Western books, either in English or translation. The Da Vinci Code graces the dirty blankets of sidewalk booksellers in Mumbai, and Harry Potter is truly global.

Those who don’t live in America are lucky. They have at least two cultures: their own, and the American imports. Those who live within America are impoverished by comparison. Americans have to go well out of their way to consume media made by people who aren’t like them. We have to go to the “Foreign” section of the video store. We have to suffer through languages we don’t understand, because we are taught only English in schools.

This same effect is repeated on a smaller scale with regional cultural capitals. In Southeast Asia, all the good movies come from Thailand. In Nepal, everything is from India. South Africa produces most of the African media, while Qatar and Egypt supply the Arab world. In every case, media in the minority countries is often much more diverse, drawing from many sources.

Maybe this is imperialism. Maybe this is a bad thing. Maybe every peoples should be producing their own entertainments just as furiously as Hollywood. Maybe. My point is only this: if you live outside of the Empire, the Empire comes to you. But if you live inside, you have to look to find the rest of the world.