Part 1 (Kevin Kelly’s interview in Christianity Today)
Part 2 (my reply, posted here)
Part 3 (drawn from the comment thread to my post):
Kevin Kelly: Nick,
Thanks for the careful read and thoughtful response.
Curious lingo??? I think there is no doubt that God speaks just like Kevin Kelly.
But to the crux of our disagreement:
You end with:
“The best you can argue, therefore, is that technological progress will, on balance, have a tendency to open more choices for more people.”
This is precisely my argument. I am not arguing that technology increases the options for everyone equally. Of course new technologies remove some options. Lots of excellent horse buggy and whip makers lost their opportunities. I talk about a very tiny net gain in options when you tally up all the options lost compared to the ones added. That very tiny micro net gain accumulated over time is progress.
“Look at any baby born today, and try to say whether that child would have a greater possibility of fulfilling its human potential if during its lifetime (a) technological progress reversed, (b) technological progress stalled, (c) technological progress advanced slowly, or (d) technological progress accelerated quickly. You can’t.”
You can. If you take a random human on earth from 10,000 years ago, from 1,000 years ago, from 100 years ago and from 10 years ago, the chances are greater the nearer we pick the more that person will fulfill their potential. Or, second experiment, ask a random person today when they would prefer to live, and the more fulfilled they are, the more recent they want to live.
“It’s absurd to believe that if Mozart were living today, he would create the great works he created in the eighteenth century – the symphonies, the operas, the concertos.”
It is only absurd if the great works had already been created. That is if someone else had written Mozart like symphonies. But if no one had written symphonies like Mozart I don’t think it absurd that if Mozart was born now, he could write symphonies. Many are still writing classical symphonies. People are still writing operas and concertos. Artists are still painting still lifes and realistic portraits Writing novels. And making careers doing so. Why not Mozart? His music doesn’t have to sound EXACTLY the same. Symphonies that a 21 century Mozart would write today may be sound different, but could still be genius. Would you say that if Dickens was alive today he would not write great novels? Would you say that if Van Gogh was alive today it is absurd to think he would paint?
I’ve been thinking hard about the source of our divergent views since we agree on a lot. And in part it may be due to this:
I spent my formative years not in college, but in the middle ages. I mean I lived in medieval towns, and feudal villages and ancient camps. I have lived in the past, not just read about it. I spent a lot of time among illiterate people, simple people with very little technology. Years in places that for all practical purposes are a time before Mozart. I feel I have a visceral feeling for both the advantages and joys of that type of life, and of its disadvantages.
I feel I have a good sense of how difficult it was for a Homer to appear. It’s hard to describe to someone outside how constrained life and roles are in pre-industrial, to say nothing of post-industrial, cultures. 99% of everyone born was a farmer or herder. Only 1% achieved anything different.
My thoughts return again and again and again to the thousands of village boys and girls I met who spent their childhoods (and beyond) plowing behind an ox year after year, or mindlessly following sheep and goats for weeks on end away from home, wanting wanting wanting to leave — to do something greater.
Homer was lucky, a one in a million. The other million Greeks, as well as you and I if we were born then, had no such luck. Their lives would only be improved in satisfaction and fulfillment if they moved to the future. I know this in my bones. In particular I remember a remote Greek island I stayed on where the women were still veiled, the folk spoke a dialect of classical Doric, and all they wanted was electricity. There were farmers and housewives but no Archimedes. I have not been back for 40 years, but I bet today there are many more occupations, far more diversity of achievements. I bet 50% or more of the population of that island are now doing something other than farming or herding.
I can’t tell you how many hours/days/weeks I spent sitting around with people who had a lot of time to sit around. I would say they had a contentment, but I would never say they came close to fulfilling their potential. They generally agreed, because they encouraged their children to NOT follow their footsteps for this reason.
This progressive view does not stem from my theology. In fact it is the reverse. My theology stems from this formative experience.
Carr: Thanks, Kevin. Because your argument that technological progress is a moral force, a force of “love,” as you put it, has practical implications for how we approach technology – as individuals and as a society – I think it’s essential that we question your argument, which is what I’m trying to do.
You seem to swing between two explanations for how technological progress expands choices. One is based on a statistical analysis of utility: do new technologies (in general) have the effect of opening more choices for more people? I have no beef with you here. Human beings are toolmakers, and the main reason they make tools is because tools are useful. They extend human power and hence options. So it’s not a surprise that, on balance, technology would leave us generally with more options. This explanation does not require us to believe there is any moral force, any force of love, influencing the course of technology.
The second explanation you give is not about cold calculations of utility. It is about technological progress being a moral force that allows individuals, as individuals, to fulfill their “godly gifts.” As you say in the interview: “we are obligated to materialize as many inventions as possible, to hurry, so that every person born and to-be-born will have a great chance of discovering and sharing their godly gifts.” Please note that here you are not talking about statistics; you are talking about individuals: every person born and to-be-born.
I think it’s revealing that when I challenge your second explanation (which is the basis for your argument that technology is a force of goodness, of godly love), you quickly (in your comment above) take refuge in your first explanation. You revert to statistics, pointing to “a very tiny net gain in options when you tally up all the options lost compared to the ones added.” That is not the same as expanding the potential of “every person born and to-be-born” to fulfill their “godly gifts.”
I ask a question about a particular baby – a real child – and suddenly you want to talk about a statistically random child, a theoretical child. Does your God think about children in statistical terms, or does He think about them as individuals?
To put it another way: If there’s a God behind your first explanation, it’s a capricious god, who doesn’t seem particularly interested in the fate of his creations as individuals. He’s God as Statistician, concerned with “very tiny net gains.” The God you explicitly identify behind your second explanation is a god of love, a god who is interested in expanding the options for every one of his creations, each of whom is blessed with unique “godly gifts.”
Which God is it?
I truly believe your argument about Mozart (or Dickens, or anyone from the past) is specious. Just because the piano persists does not mean that Mozart would still be Mozart if he were born today. The world of human beings – the technium, as you describe it – has changed dramatically, opening some new opportunities and closing others, and it’s impossible to know how that complexity of changes would affect the fate of any given individual. And, as I said above in my reply to Mike, if Mozart’s gifts would survive history moving forward, why would they not survive historical change moving backward? Music existed before the piano. No, I don’t think that it’s absurd to think that Van Gogh would paint if he were born today (though it’s by no means assured); I think it’s equally plausible that he would paint if he had been born 500 years earlier than he had.
On the one hand, you want to tie individual genius to the particular technologies of the day. On the other hand, you seem to say that individual genius is not constrained by the technologies of the day. Which is it?
Let me make a final point, not for rhetorical reasons but because it’s one I struggle with in thinking about the effects of technological progress. You like to take a statistical view of technology’s effects, which leads you to speak of percentages of the population. For instance: a greater percentage of people live in material comfort today than did a few millennia ago. That’s a valid way of measuring things. But there’s an equally valid way of measuring things that looks at absolute numbers rather than statistical norms. The view is very different depending on which way you measure things. For instance: you could argue that technology has improved life on earth because a lower percentage of people exist in a state of physical suffering today than used to. But one of the most important effects of technology has been to allow for an enormous increase in human population. And if you look at absolute numbers, you might well find that more individuals exist in a state of physical suffering than did before. The statistical analysis obscures the individual sufferer. So is technology good because it has reduced the percentage of people who suffer, or is technology bad because it has increased the number of people who suffer?
Kelly: Good questions, Nick.
I think you throw out three main challenges, which I short hand here:
1) Which God is it? Individual or statistical?
2) Does time and technology constrain genius?
3) Does God care about a percentage or a quantity?
My quick reply.
1) You ask “Does your God think about children in statistical terms, or does He think about them as individuals?”
The first answer — which is not very satisfying — is that as a omniscient God he thinks both. But I don’t think it takes a God to hold both views in your head. I think that you can increase options for individuals by increasing the average option or increasing the options for the average individual. I argue that increasing technology gives a “greater chance” for an individual to become fulfilled. I do not argue that a technology A, or even set of technologies A-Z, will automatically optimize the potential of person N. I argue that it will increase the potential for potential.
Perhaps you object to the idea that a moral force could be statistical? Or that love might somehow be an impersonal force? That love is something that only occurs between two humans and is not found elsewhere in the universe?
To answer your first question directly, I think “a god who is interested in expanding the options for every one of his creations, each of whom is blessed with unique “godly gifts,” ” does this very thing by expanding the options for all. This steady expansion (known as progress) may not touch each individual (our and their loss) but because it can liberate gifts an average, like most freedoms, it is a moral force.
2) You ask, “On the one hand, you want to tie individual genius to the particular technologies of the day. On the other hand, you seem to say that individual genius is not constrained by the technologies of the day. Which is it?”
I say the presence of technology enables individual genius and the lack of technology constrains individual genius. The particular technologies available greatly influence what can be produced. If time were symmetrical, running backwards with no effect, you would be right. (” if Mozart’s gifts would survive history moving forward, why would they not survive historical change moving backward?”) But time and progress is asymmetrical. That is the whole point. So while some options diminish, most accumulate, and none completely disappear, although they may obsolesce. We have more choices. As the book Shock of the Old establishes, more of the old technologies are still very much with us. In Mozart’s case all his technologies — and options — are still here. All of Dickens’ tools are still here. That’s why, while Mozart’s gifts can go both ways, his tools only go one way.
3) Your last point is very interesting. What kind of moral progress is there if it only entails the expansion of percentages and not absolute numbers? I would say it is not a very robust progress then. But I take a very long view of progress (my books starts pre-history), and in this view the rapid expansion of population during the industrial age is still progress in absolute numbers because all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore. And while we tend to ignore it, I believe there was very slow mild progress (increase in options) even in remote agricultural areas over the millennia. The peasants in China in 1776 were better off — on average — than the peasants of 1776 BC, or even 776. And as I maintain the poverty of urban slums is much preferable to the poverty of the countryside, so the mass migration into cities in absolute numbers is a sign of progress.
To sum, I think you bring up two main questions:
Is progress real? I believe the evidence is clear it is.
Is progress a moral force? I think it is, but this may be a matter of definitions.
Carr: Thanks, Kevin. I think we’ve both had our say, so I’m inclined to leave it there. But I can’t resist making two quick points. You say, “the presence of technology enables individual genius and the lack of technology constrains individual genius.” That’s not always so, as the Homer example shows. Technological change can disable individual genius as well as enable it. There may be many people on earth today who would have been better able to fulfill their genius, or in general their potential, had they lived in an earlier, less technologically advanced time. We’ll never know. You also say, “all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore.” How do you know that? There’s a strain of recent research which suggests that many hunter/gatherers led pretty good lives – idyllic, in some ways. The number of available “options” is not the only measure of the richness of a life.
Kelly: Yes, I think we’ve had our say so we’ll leave it there, but I’ll just add to your final points;
“There may be many people on earth today who would have been better able to fulfill their genius, or in general their potential, had they lived in an earlier, less technologically advanced time.”
Yes, there may be, but I find it hard to imagine who they are.
You also say, “all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore.” How do you know that?
Having visited some tribes, and watching the record of others, and reading the literature by the impartial. Simply put, very few people continue that way if they have a choice.
“There’s a strain of recent research which suggests that many hunter/gatherers led pretty good lives – idyllic, in some ways.”
I’ve read that research very carefully, and you might call their lifestyle many things, but no one, especially the researchers would use any word like idyllic or anything close to it. Like the Amish it has many attractive qualities, but the closer you get, the less attractive it becomes for yourself. I know. I considered it and looked very closely.
Nick, as I said earlier, I think this difference is really what we differ on.