Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Growth of High Technology:
Part I: The Promise of Utopia?

I felt the need to split this into two parts as it continued to grow steadily. Not that I have a problem with too much to write, but I just can’t drown everyone in text. And I apologize for the delay in updating; AP tests coinciding with final exams and a major chorus concert made the last week sheer hell. On a happier note, it was literally the last week; of high school if nothing else.

I suspect that the spoiler warning will become standard issue. For this one, I’ll be referring to the video game BioShock and a manga called Aqua.

Hopefully, we’re all familiar with the growing development of technology. It’s visible everywhere: computers get faster almost every week, cars powered by electricity or solar power are announced, and many other examples. And almost without exception, we herald these changes and improvements as better. We’ve grown to the point where we consider new technology to be a good thing.

But is it a good thing in and of itself? Is improvement simply to make a more powerful computer a good thing? And the million-dollar question: do we apply the idea that everything is a system to improve upon to our own bodies?

For me, the answer is a resounding no to all. And I can gladly call upon many, many examples from the fantasy worlds that I enjoy to defend that point.

The most obvious example from the games that I know comes from BioShock. As a quick caveat, I have not actually played the game; my knowledge of the game comes secondhand from sources such as the Plot Summary article on GameFAQs. (For those interested in seeing that themselves, go to GameFAQs through the link I have, search for BioShock, and click on FAQs.) And even then, it’s not really the game play or what the protagonist does that really concerns this topic. It’s the back story, the events that set the stage for the game, that provide a chilling example of the faults of high technology.

Admittedly, that quick comment doesn’t do the many factors in the fall of Rapture any justice. For those unfamiliar with the story, a man named Andrew Ryan built an underwater city called Rapture to break from the ideals of the world. He wanted a purely capitalist society where no one would be obligated to share what they had, as people in the U.S. and the Soviet Union had to. The city quickly became a haven for what Ryan felt were the best examples of mankind, and indeed, their technology progressed much faster than the rest of the world’s.

That didn’t exactly save them, however. When a new substance was commercialized by a man named Frank Fontaine, Rapture slowly descended into war. This substance, called Adam, had the power to change the human body in unimaginable ways. And yet, as this new technology granted Fontaine ever more power and influence, it also led to Ryan’s strong desire to eliminate him. The resulting civil war destroyed the city as the utopia that Ryan intended it to be.

The point behind all the back story is that the technology of Rapture didn’t help improve the lives of its citizens. While it certainly wasn’t the only factor involved, it also was a contributor. I see the story of Rapture as a warning: the warning that an ever-increasing march toward “better” technology isn’t certainly going to improve the lives of people.

As with anything, the real determinant of what our lives are like won’t be directly connected to how advanced our technology is. As human beings throughout history have found, the enjoyment that one gets out of life is connected to what you do with that life.

Simply making our lives more convenient isn’t going to ensure that we’re happier. As Akari Mizunashi put it in the first volume of Aqua, “All the cities are progressing with beautification and simplification. It’s very neat and tidy. And shopping, and work—unlike here, you can do everything from home. It’s very convenient. But… I feel like something is missing in those neat, tidy, convenient cities.” That, I think, exemplifies this reason against a continued improvement of technology. Some things can’t be quantified in science, and those are exactly the things that would be missing.

How do you measure the joy that one gets from a job well done? The pride when one is praised by a parent? Or the determination to complete a task? These are all things that the future would ask us to sacrifice, if the future holds a continued race to higher and higher levels of power.

Akari left those neat, tidy, convenient cities to come to a different world. She came to do a job that in the advanced world would be a computer’s job, as a gondolier and tour guide in a city much like Venice. Yet that is what she wanted to do, and what her attention was devoted towards from the day she left that advanced world. She sought that determination, that pride and joy in her life. In a world of the highest possible technology, she wouldn’t find those things, and neither would anyone else.

Simply upgrading ourselves so that we can run faster, breathe underwater, or even fire lightning bolts from our hands isn’t a ticket to bliss. I am a runner; I enjoy track and cross-country. But I can’t say that I’d be considerably happier if I could improve my time with genetic modification or nanotechnology. Either would improve my fairly mediocre 11:04 two-mile race, yes. But I take pride in what I do. I work to improve my capability as a runner, and I find joy in doing so.

That last race, when I set that 11:04, was one of the best races I’ve ever been in. I was constantly changing positions with two other runners, with first place in that heat as the prize. It was a matter of sheer determination at the end there. I fell behind the leader by four seconds at the end, and only barely held second place against the other runner. That race required all of my skill and determination, for sure.

And had I been “improved” to be able to run 10:34 rather than 11:04, then one of two things would have happened. Either I would have won because the others were not enhanced, or they also would have been enhanced and nothing would have changed. What would my victory have proven, then? That I had a better geneticist than the other two? Certainly, not that I was a better athlete or runner than they were. When I win, or when I set a personal best time, I take the joy from the fact that my work paid off, not from the victory or the personal record itself.

So, what does this say about the growth of high technology? That it is nowhere near an assured utopia for all. Rapture tried to create that; they failed spectacularly in a manner that assured death for all involved. Akari found herself in the growth of such a “utopia,” and found it to be unsatisfying. Why then must we continue to strive for such a false hope, when we already have the tools to create happy, satisfied lives?

Of course, I have no doubt that some question our ability to create happy lives. That, however, is a subject I’ll address with my next major post.

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