Water and Wine

Umair Haque writes about good and bad technology in Prosperity in the Age of Intelligent Machines. He redefines “high” and “low” tech from the standpoint of whether or not it enriches the quality of human life. Further, Haque suggests we should strive toward “happiness, meaning, and purpose”. Of course the author never explains what he means by these terms, but let’s put aside this “pursuit of happiness” and focus on the evaluation of technology. Since “quality of life” is almost meaningless without further qualification (yes, saving lives and reducing physical suffering are obvious goals, but Haque clearly means more than that—the goals of the spirit) I propose a simpler way to evaluate technology: Does the new technology make us more or less free?

Of course whether or not you would deem a technology good or bad using freedom as the metric would depend on whether or not you actually want freedom. Most people say they do. They probably don’t. To most, freedom is worse than death. This is because, in a way, it is death. Or rather, it is the same as facing death, for to be free is to make a choice in the presence of death, knowing that your actions are limited by the short span of your life. A free action is a choice one makes in the full knowledge that one’s choices are limited, both by their consequences and by one’s lifespan. Only in the face of death one acts as a human being from the standpoint of a complete life, and it is only in that moment that one makes a decision based on nothing less than what that life stands for. At that point—the moment of contemplation when you look upon your life in its entirety—whether or not you can act in accordance with your values will depend on the strength of your will. A contemplative mind may face this moment every day, a distracted mind perhaps only once, or never. Naturally, because contemplating death is so painful and testing our will so terrifying that we do everything we can to escape it, drowning our life in a sea of distractions until the very end. We hope that when we reach the precipice we won’t have the time to notice or care. Thus we run away from death, and from freedom.

There is never going to be a Utopia, since such a thing by definition means a perfect state of affairs, an equilibrium, and a perfect equilibrium can only be obtained at the price of death. What then, can we hope for? Life. A state of being infused with chaos, leaving a possibility of a future that is different to today—for it would not really be a “future” if it was otherwise. Simply put, what we can hope for is the freedom to think, choose and act. Stripped of this freedom we become nothing more than particles swept around by pre-existing processes. With this freedom we have the power to stop those processes, beginning new ones in their stead. This is what separates man from animal. The freedom to think, choose and act is what makes us human. Surrendering our freedom, willingly, is committing suicide by induced coma—you may not die right away, but neither will you remain truly human.

Haque talks of technologies high and low. I propose: technologies of water and wine. Technologies of wine intoxicate and incapacitate, submerging our brains into a state of dumb pleasure. Technologies of water nourish and hydrate, giving our minds and bodies the strength and the energy to think and act. The choice is not between pleasure and work, it is between freedom and unfreedom, between life and death. It need not be said that one cannot pursue happiness, happiness being a state of being you experience as a result of pursuing something else, something other than itself. We can hope that technology will help make us happy, but we cannot design technology in order for it to do so. What we can do, however, is choose to make technologies that don’t make us dumber, weaker, and more impulsive. We can choose to make technologies that serve us rather than turn us into mere extensions of themselves. We can choose to make technologies that empower our minds, aiding contemplation and thought rather than drowning them in a sea of distraction. We can choose to be free—but only if we want to.

January 2016