World Futures: Ethics, Technology & Time – Part One

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

Ethics involves the concepts of right and wrong. When considering the future of humanity, human beings collectively, we make an implicit assumption that humanity is good and that it should continue forever.

This further implies that we should be concerned about our descendants a hundred million years from now even though human beings as we know them have only been around for about 200,000 years. Obviously we cannot fashion the hundred year future, but we can avoid making damaging mistakes. It is our ethical duty to try.

During the period of time from the Paleolithic Age to the present, technology has evolved from the development of stone tools to the cell phone, affecting the production of food (energy and chemicals for the human machine), efficient movement of mass (people and things), communication between humans permitting unity or disunity of effort, and the accumulation of knowledge. As an example, control of fire and cooking probably happened 2.3 million years ago, while hearths appeared about 790,000 years ago and bread dates back 14,500 years. Can you fathom these time scales when, for most of us, life expectancy is less than 100 years?

Is this the growth of technology?  Per the Google dictionary (an example of technology), technology is “machinery and equipment developed from application of scientific knowledge” and/or “the branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied science.” Was the control of fire technology? In modern terms we probably say no, it just happened. But in my perspective it was technology because it allowed humans to better define and control their environment. It had two sides however, both good and bad depending on how it was used.

Flash forward a few thousand years to A.D. Just before A.D., the Chinese invented paper. In the first century vending machines and automatic doors were invented. Around 589 A.D., a truly critical invention appeared under the Sui Dynasty in China – toilet paper. And in the 9th century A.D., in the Tang Dynasty, gun powder was created. Was that good or bad? It depends on how it is used. As one keeps moving forward one sees an increasing pace of observation, invention and creation. The pace is accelerating, a quantity measured in units per second per second.

Historically, ethics or moral philosophy has been studied and debated, at least among scholars, for a long time. Or maybe a short time is a better descriptive. And when “scholars” determined what was right or wrong, it was implemented (maybe) in the other homo sapiens permitting some level of governance. Normative ethicists study practical means of determining moral courses of action while applied ethicists determine what a person is obligated to do in a specific situation. While this might be great for a slow evolution of governance, does it work for large populations ruled by governments making choices affecting governance?

On Jan. 28, 1896 the first speeding ticket was issued to Walter Arnold for going eight miles per hour in a two mile per hour zone. He broke the law and was caught! The technology of the time required governors to establish some rules (laws) because of the new-fangled things call automobiles. Today we may find Arnold’s plight humorous, after all can you really drive an automobile at two miles per hour for any distance? But back in 1896, what was the ethical decision to be made about the magnitude of the speed limit? What was right or wrong?

Move forward to today. In my estimation, most automobiles powered by an internal combustion engine can accelerate to a speed of 100 miles per hour or greater. What is your ethical responsibility as an individual to always move at a velocity below the speed limit? What is the ethical responsibility of the enforcer (usually a human police officer) to ticket you for 1, 5, 10, or 20 or more miles per hour over the speed limit? For completeness, that is 1.61, 8.05, 16.1, or 32.2 kilometers per hour over the speed limit.

Why be so obnoxious as to include kilometers per hour in this “silly” example? Because the technology of the world requires common standards and while we, as humanity, have standards, they are physical standards for length, time, amount of substance, electric current, temperature, luminous intensity, and mass. These international standards (governance) have nothing to do with right or wrong or ethics.

Earlier I mentioned controlled fire and the hearth, separated by over 1.5 million years. Plenty of time to think about it and develop necessary ethical standards if required. But today knowledge is doubling every year implying increasingly fast (accelerating) technology evolution and revolution.  We have less and less time to consider, debate, conclude and adopt proper ethical principles associated with a technological advance or direction. It is appropriate to consider some examples and start thinking and debating now.

Till next time….

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