Welcome to the Future

I just spent three hours recording a special for CNN called Welcome to the Future, along with Jeff Greenfield, Ray Kurzweil, Mirka De Arellano, and the spectabulous (yes, she deserves her own adjective) Margaret Cho. (It will air on CNN Saturday March 25 at 7pm EST, and repeated Sunday at the same time.)

It was a strange and long journey into various utopian and dystopian high-tech scenarios concerning everything from nano-bots implanted in two-year-olds so they can compete for places at increasingly selective nursery schools to why we never got to ride go carts on Mars even though Lost in Space was set in 1997.

I found Kurzweil brilliant but a little creepy. I’m usually on the gung-ho pro-technology side of discussions, so it was fun to be voicing some of the more cautionary concerns for a change. Of course, I’ve never really been pro-tech or anti-tech – just pro “life” (in the living things sense) and pro consciousness. While Mirka would argue against, say, genetic selection techniques on religious grounds (we should raise the children as God gave them to us), I was in the interesting position of suggesting how a balance could be struck between human agency and new technology. Do we *want* to choose our child’s talents? If so, what does that say about why we want to have a child in the first place? Is it to have the opportunity to care for another human being, or simply to extend our own obsessions to another generation?

It all came down to “human nature” for Jeff Greenfield; you know, the idea that we can develop all sorts of technologies but human nature will stay the same, and use them for the same good and bad reasons. And that’s when, for me, it became about the opposite: yes, human beings may have their biases, but so do the technologies we develop and implement. And we don’t always know those biases when we set out to invent this stuff in the first place.

For example, Marconi thought radio would create understanding across cultures when in reality, as every media student learns, radio is such a “hot” medium that it gave leaders the ability to stoke mass racist violence in Nazi Germany and more recently in Rwanda. Does that mean that radio should never have been invented? Of course not – only that we don’t always know the ways our technologies influence us until after they’ve been implemented.

Was there a take home from all this? Sure. I think we’re moving into an era when we will define ourselves more by the technologies we refuse than the ones we accept.