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Posted: Jul 30, 2008

The debate about converging technologies: Visions and the potential for social conflict

Previous chapter: Conceptions of Convergence and Their Political Location
It is anticipated that a convergence of the technical sciences on the nanoscale will produce fundamental improvements in the core areas of social applications, but also substantial dangers. Opposing opinions, which are often understood as polarities of »utopian« and »dystopian«, characterize some of the discussions about research policy. Although the apocalyptic and the optimistic forms of futurism largely share the same assumptions as to future opportunities for scientific and technical development, the goading between these poles just serves to escalate the conflict.
The CT topic plays a special role in these discussions. A debate about far-reaching visions accompanied the decision, made in 2000, to raise nanotechnology and the nanosciences to a central, transdisciplinary field of research and to provide them government funding. The first CT initiative, which originated in precisely this context, was furthermore dragged into the so-called American culture wars over bioethical issues. This was partly due to the fact that the President's Council on Bioethics, which is generally considered to represent conservative values, criticized it. The focus of this criticism was the close linking of the CT conception of this so-called NBIC initiative with visions of far-reaching human enhancement, i.e., a technological modification of the human body and an ongoing merging of the human mind with machines.
During the same period of time, strong forces within the NBIC initiative attempted to forge an open alliance with the small but internationally organized futuristic movement of the »transhumanists«. This movement has recently become a favorite target of attacks by critics, both conservatives and others. The expectations of the transhumanists and some other key figures within the NBIC initiative even include visions of an »enhancement society«, the realization of which could be furthered by measures that include the legalization of »genetic doping« and previously outlawed drugs, and which culminate in the hope that death will be overcome by means of science and technology. It is especially these particular features of the initiative that lead the CT debate to exhibit such an extremely visionary character and to focus on the topic of human enhancement.
Although most of the social conflicts that are now becoming apparent have been limited to academic discussions, a few of the controversies have nonetheless already attained a certain degree of political relevance. Besides protests (especially in France) and the actions of several NGOs, these include above all the conflicts between religious forces and transhumanist or libertarian activists and academics that take place, primarily in the United States. Apparently the effects of the convergence processes affecting science and technology are focusing our attention on the relationship between nature and technology and between the grown and the artificial.
Competing views of human nature and of the human condition play an important role. The goading between the religious and the transhumanist activists, in particular, serves to increase tensions. The range of criticism extends from positions that are ecologically motivated and critical of globalization, to conflicts over concepts of human nature and the significance of these concepts for the fundamentals of our democracy (such as human rights), to the firmly religious arguments in which posthumanist and other technofuturist concepts are interpreted as an expression of human arrogance and a turning away from god (or as »hubris«).
A precondition for the realization of these posthumanist visions is the technical modification and enhancement of the human body (e.g., through novel implants), by means of which previously fundamental physical and mental limitations (and thus the species Homo sapiens) are to be transcended. Another precondition, besides this transhumanist idea in a narrower sense, is the development of AI that is similar or better than man's in quality and that together with mankind—or even in its stead—will become the driver of evolution. In this context, posthumanism appears to be a recognizable intellectual and sociocultural movement that in one or another form is working to create nonhuman beings that are cognitively superior to humans.
Beyond academic circles and the feature sections of quality media, bioethical topics will most probably continue to attract the attention of the general public. They get the attention of large portions of the public or of certain groups (e.g., the disabled or pregnant) who are affected by scientific and technological developments in a particularly strong manner.
In summary, we can say that criticism of the promoters of convergence visions and diverse »human enhancement« technologies is roughly along two primary lines of attack:
  • Doubts are expressed about the feasibility of these visions and regarding the scientific seriousness of their advocates, often with reference to the influence of science fiction and of transhumanism.
  • Criticism is leveled at political and ideological aspects of the ideas about human enhancement and about technofuturist ideas. Some of the critics even agree in part with the futurist assumptions about the future development of technology and humanity's ability to make these visions come true.
  • Other political features that are often mentioned are the relevance of the military options for utilizing these new technologies and the fact that some strategies are characterized by a fixation on technology and by technological determinism. Moreover, political and historical facets of the convergence issue and posthumanism have attracted critical and even polemical attention in various academic disciplines.
    Next chapter: Convergence Processes in Research and Development
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