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The Techno-Human Condition

The Techno-Human Condition

by Braden R. Allenby & Daniel Sarewitz
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
192 pp. $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01569-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is rather unusual in that it clearly challenges the very foundation of the way we currently attempt to solve major world problems. It explains why climate change fixes are not working, why the war in Afghanistan is not being won as originally expected, and why many other similar perplexing problems remain unsolved. “We need to substitute “explore with humility” for “attack with rigidity” (p. 105).  The book has a specific emphasis on technology and our human relationship to all aspects of this technology.

The Techno-Human Condition will infuriate some, be dismissed out-of-hand by a few, but will unsettle almost all readers. The reason is, that while Allenby & Sarewitz's analysis of current problem solving is a bitter pill to swallow, there is an underlying understanding that their approach is not only correct but also essential to embrace. “[T]he world we are making through our own choices and inventions is a world that neutralizes and even mocks our existing commitments to rationality, comprehension, and a meaningful link between action and consequence. Either we accept that we are brutes living way beyond our means … or we search for a different set of links to connect our highest ideals to the reality we keep constructing” (p. 65).

The book is suited to all levels of readership and is a fast paced easy read. I couldn't put it down. It is the result of a grant from the Templeton Foundation, an organisation that makes possible research of the kind undertaken by these two authors. Without this foundation, and its charter to fund research into answering the big questions, much important scholarship simply would not happen.

There are extensive chapter notes (for reference and further research) a Bibliography and Index. These are preceded by eight chapters and a fascinating Epilogue with the following titles.
1 - What a Long, Transhuman Trip It Has Already Been
2 - In the Cause-and-Effect Zone
3 - Level I and II Technology: Effectiveness, Progress, and Complexity
4 - Level III Technology: Radical Contingency in Earth Systems
5 - Individuality and Incomprehensibility
6 - Complexity, Coherence, Contingency
7 - Killer Apps
8 - In Front of Our Nose
Epilogue: The Museum of Human Frailty

Allenby & Sarewitz use the phenomenon (or movement) known as Transhumanism as a kind of datum from which to refer to in their wide spread discussion of technology and the human condition. Transhumanism advocates the augmentation, enhancement, and push towards immortality of all humans. The authors approach what they see as the ignorance, naivety, and in some ways arrogance of the transhumanists by separating technology/human interaction into three levels.

I found this classification system most edifying. Level 1 is the base technology (a jet aircraft for example). Level II is the infrastructure that attempts to run the Level I technology (flight schedules, air traffic controllers and so on). Level III is how the two previous levels can react at a global level (the rapid spread of disease, carried quickly to many distant countries almost instantaneously). Allenby & Sarewitz argue, in fact it is their main thesis, that most problems arise when we confuse the different levels of technology, especially when we try to solve a Level III problem at Level 1 (which they insist, we do all the time).

I have one minor, though not trivial criticism of Allenby & Sarewitz's approach. Even though they vigorously analyse and attack the Enlightenment way of understanding the world, their approach is underpinned by the same Enlightenment reasoning methodology. Sure they discuss religions here and there, but they do not acknowledge the “way of knowing” we could term spiritual. Many Eastern religions, Australian Aboriginal cosmology, and various other tribal systems have totally different ways of knowing the world than the Western way, and, consequently, ways of solving the global conditions we children of the Enlightenment have created. These deserve serious consideration in any approach that suggests ways to deal with major Earth problems. I sense the authors perhaps have an empathy with such spiritual approaches, but it is neither articulated nor acknowledged. After all, John Templeton's vision was “...the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship” (John Templeton Foundation website).

This is an important book (criticism aside), if for no other reason than it confronts the reader in a way that neutrality is not really possible, one cannot sit on the fence, for example, regarding the way to solve climate change problems. We are forced into a position of having to (re)think the whole gamut of human – technology interactions, and either agree with the author's modus operandi or come up with a better approach. We are not left the myopic luxury of “business as usual”.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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