The Millennium, Seattle and the End of Technology

image Published: Apr 14, 2010

Millennium Context

Since humans began counting, certain numbers have had special significance. There’s a whole literature on the meanings people have attached to various numbers in the Bible - like 3 for the Trinity, 12 apostles and 7 all sorts of things. In our current system of numerals, which we call Arabic, it’s repeats of tens that we especially choose to commemorate. Now we’ve reached the two tens of tens of tens of years ... But what from? Not the Big Bang, nor beginning of the human race, nor what we call western civilisation; we don’t know when any those happened. It’s dated from a person. But why that person? Simply that he is the one whom hundreds of millions of people the world over regard as the person in whom God come to earth, uniquely. Before and since there have been many holy men and women, but nothing like Jesus Christ .... who claimed to be God and, according to the records, utterly convinced his followers that what he said and did “rang true” with a claim that would otherwise be simply ridiculous. The Christian claim is that quite simply God came to earth about 2000 years ago, and that was the most monumental thing that’s ever happened, to the point of numbering time as being before, or after, it.
Scots traditionally celebrate Hogmanay, as we call it, as much as Christmas. This is seen as The Big One, yet we’ve been bending over backwards not to put the number 2000 in its true context. In the UK most of the lead up to the Millennium has been that of a pretty secular event. This short piece on the SRT website is just to redress the balance a little, but also to ask a question about where we have got to at this point in history, and especially with technology.

Impact of Technology

Of the all the shaping forces around us, none has more long term impact than what we call technology. Humans have been practising it since the first primitive tools like the flint axe or or shaping a bone or wood, or making fire, or whatever. Up to the last 250 years its impact was important but measured. Since the Industrial Revolution, a combination of three things have meant the impact has enormously increased. One is the power which it has become possible to probe and then harness - like the micro-chemical, the sub-atomic and the genetic. A second is the scale on which we have exploited those powers. The third is the changing of our activities and societies to the rhythms of abstract scientific and technological logic.
As we turn the millennium, it is this last one that is causing many to wonder where we are going. The optimism of the turn of the last century, which was rudely shattered by the First World War, re-emerged after the Second, as the fifties and sixties were an age of rebuilding of popular belief in scientific progress. But beginning with DDT, thalidomide and nuclear power, a growing awareness has come that even the things which are supposed to bring boons to humankind - like improved food production, medicine and energy supply - can also have their serious disadvantages. The growth of the environmental movement has been one of the striking phenomena of the last three decades of the century. With it has come an alternative agenda, which found new voice in Seattle at the World Trade summit.

Alternative Visions

The green movement indeed has had a new head of steam over genetically modified food. Here, at last, it has found a popular peg on which to promote its ideals. The promotion of organic agriculture as the natural alternative to tinkering with our food has a lot of popular mileage. It remains to be seen whether the trend is sustainable. For example, will current consumer concerns about GM remain as fixed as they have over irradiated food, or will they begin to diverge from the green agenda if fears about health and environmental risks turn out to be overstated? And what would be the result if the same critical scrutiny that has been applied to GM were equally resolutely applied to an impartial critique of organic systems? As with the promotion of renewable energy as the green alternative to nuclear and fossil power, there is a danger of being romantic about the alternatives, and then discovering later that they too may have their particular problems. In the case of organic systems, no one knows if we could actually feed 6, let alone 8.5, billion people on organic produce, at least as currently defined. There is a risk that organic would be unable to deliver, just as there is a risk that GM would lead to ecological disasters.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of that particular debate (see our GM Pages for our views), there is a new and far more general concern in the UK about the loss of natural systems and rhythms. It’s not that we’ve had too much technology - for example, the appetite for the Internet and the products of information technology grow unabated. It’s a sense that technology is driving us rather than we driving it. Philosophers and theologians of technology have looked at this from afar. Jacques Ellul saw this as well nigh inevitable. Others have seen more possibility for human control. Egbert Schuurman sees a technical mind set which becomes a world view - technicism - replacing the knowledge of God by human skills.

What Seattle Marks

Whatever one’s view, Seattle certainly began to express is a ground swell of human recoil from an unholy alliance of the technical mind set that pursues the next scientific advance with the free market commercial ideology. At a deeper level than the green movement, people are saying there’s something wrong with this alliance that is pushing aside basic human values and the care for the planet on which we rely. Many in scientific and official circles tend to deride such concerns by equating them with “back to nature”, as though literally wanting to reverse the Industrial Revolution. For a few, maybe there are such ideological commitments, but for most that is not the point. It is about what we do with the technology we have got, and how we can find ways as a society to choose the new technologies that civil society wants, instead of the ones the corporate sector (or whichever group effectively brokers power at a given point in time) decide to give us. Here is a challenge for the Millennium indeed - what is the end of technology? In other words, what is its real purpose, and where do human beings decide it should have limits?
How we answer it will depend on whether we apply a much broader spectrum of values to the question of technology - as SRT has sought to do over the years. It is a question we explored in our study on genetic engineering, Engineering Genesis and which SRT will continue to examine in new studies on technology and risk and technology and globalisation. To the many readers of this site, we thank you for the interest you have shown in SRT’s work, and we wish you a thoughtful turn of the third Millennium. Above all the wisdom of Jesus Christ, whose creation this is, and whose Millennium this is, may inform and encourage, restrain and guide our technology in the next one.

Donald Bruce
SRT Project Director
31 December 1999

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