The myth of Icarus is a cautionary tale, evoking both the importance of innovation and the dangers inherent in it. Icarus took the invention of wings too far too fast, flying unwisely close to the sun, his wax wings melting, sending him plummeting back to Earth. The hubris of the story lies not in the creation of wings, but in hastily using them beyond their capacity for flight. As a society, we are faced with similar situations where inattentiveness to the limits of our knowledge could have unfortunate results as we implement both old and new technologies. We must dream boldly of the future, but we must also remember to waken from our reverie and examine our true needs and goals, with clear heads and opens eyes, before we attempt to turn our visions into realities.
Genetic engineering presents one of the most potent and powerful technologies to shape our dreams of the future, offering extraordinary promise as well as potential disaster. Social and environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin cautions that “Genetic engineering represents the ultimate tool. It extends humanity’s reach over the forces of nature as no other technology in history, perhaps with the exception of the nuclear bomb, the ultimate expression of the age of pyrotechnology. With genetic engineering we can assume control over the hereditary blueprints of life itself. Can any reasonable person believe for a moment that such an unprecedented power is without substantial risk?”[i]
We do not have nearly enough knowledge about how the genetic interaction of millions of species might be affected by genetic engineering. We don’t even have enough information about the system that is the body to predict with any real accuracy beforehand the full effects of genetically engineering humans. The level of understanding needed to gauge how genetic engineering will play out in an individual organism is simply beyond our current grasp. The depth of knowledge necessary to fathom the genetic complexity of ecologies is even further beyond our current abilities. The specter of the unknown should caution us to proceed in this new science with the precautionary principle as our guiding standard.
During the past few decades, the biotech industry and its GE eco-optimists have been busily modifying many staple crops throughout the world. As of 2013 in the US, 98 percent of the soybean crops, 88 percent of corn crops, and 93 percent of cotton crops are genetically modified.[ii] Unfortunately, we do not know and cannot accurately predict what the long-term effects on the environment or on humans might be from modifying any or all of our staple crops.
The GE eco-optimists, perceiving the situation from a Modern worldview, would like us to modify all of our crops and livestock: from corn and beans, to tomatoes and apples, to cows and pigs. They believe that GE agriculture will benefit humanity, and they list a number of ways such crops would be good for us. They believe they can create crops that are more resistant to disease and pests as well as make them more resistant to herbicides. They also believe they can increase the productivity of plants or animals by making them larger, and that they can increase the quality of plants and animals, making them taste better to humans. By and large, they believe they can improve on nature in nearly every way.
Some of these beliefs are so far borne out by reality: Monsanto created Bt corn, with genes that code for the expression of Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, acting as a built-in pesticide. The company has also added genes to make corn and other crops more resistant to glyphosate herbicides, such as their Roundup product. Additionally, geneticists have modified rice to add beta-carotene in an attempt to alter a staple crop of the developing world to provide a needed nutrient to potentially as many as 670,000 children with a vitamin-A deficiency. While this golden rice has yet to be introduced to farmers’ fields, preliminary tests suggest that as little as a single cup of cooked rice might provide half of a child’s daily vitamin-A requirements.[iii]
GE eco-optimists also proudly proclaim that the majority of scientific studies have proven GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be as safe as traditional food and that there has never been a documented case of allergic reaction to genetically modified food in the United States. This is true. Even scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the European Commission have released statements supportive of the safety of the current wave of GMOs.[iv] The majority of the scientific research done so far on today’s GMOs strongly suggests that, by and large, they are safe.[v]
However, there are dissenting voices in the GE scientific community who dispute the safety of GMOs, and there have been studies conducted suggesting that GMOs pose potential risks to humans, animals, and the environment. There are other studies suggesting that GMO crop yields are not significantly higher than traditional crops, and that GMO crops encourage increased use of chemical herbicides that are detrimental to soil quality and the purity of water tables. Other concerns are mutative resistance and genetic drift, whereby genes from GE crops are transferred to local non-GMO or organic crops. This means the weeds that the increased use of herbicides are supposed to kill instead adapt and develop a resistance to the chemicals, requiring even more herbicides. These anti-GE scientists and activists believe that the primary beneficiaries of GMOs are not farmers or consumers, but the GE companies that create and sell them.[vi]
Moreover, absence of allergic reactions to GMOs in the lab cannot easily be confirmed in the general population of the United States due to the lack of proper product labeling, which the GE industry has fought against. The absence of product labeling makes it difficult or impossible to correlate potential allergic reactions in the population to any specific GMO food. Furthermore, the patent regime imposed by GE companies means that farmers using GE crops cannot save seed from their crop for replanting because the genetic code of the seeds themselves is considered property of the GE companies who designed them. Not only does this create an unnecessary financial burden on the farmers, but it also sets up a dangerous precedent — if some future GE company engineers a new kind of farm animal, would the progeny of that animal be in violation of the company’s patent? Could future, genetically modified humans be unable to procreate without the permission (or paid licenses) of the company that holds the patents on their genes?
While the current, limited range of GMO crops may be relatively safe, releasing large quantities of GMO organisms — vegetable and animal — into the environment creates highly unpredictable situations. We have no way of envisioning what the results of this will be. To assume that the effects will be negligible or benign is the ultimate expression of over confidence. Ecologies are complex systems, living adaptable systems, and they will respond to abrupt and significant changes, often with abrupt and significant adaptations. Whether humans can subsequently adapt to these environmental changes, and whether they are beneficial or detrimental to human needs, will remain unknown until it is possibly too late to adequately respond to a potential crisis.
Generic engineering also applies directly to humans. Research into the human genome offers a great deal of promise for the advancement of human health and welfare over the coming century. By understanding how genes code for and manufacture certain proteins, or how they act in concert, we can begin to understand the origins for some of the most debilitating diseases. There is also the strong possibility that we will gain the ability to correct genes that code for diseases both before and after birth. Somatic gene therapy is the correction of genes that do not pass on to offspring. This sort of gene therapy would, assuming it didn’t cause problems, alter the genetic code for the cells of a person’s body, thus removing a genetic defect. However, these changes would not be passed on to this person’s children. The changes to genetic information in germ-line therapy do pass on to a person’s progeny. When people talk about the possibility of changing the physical characteristics of their children through GE, they are talking about germ-line therapy. These changes, alterations in utero to the child’s DNA, would be passed on to the child’s own future children.
GE eco-optimist Lee Silver sees the possibility of the human race dividing into two distinct species, those who have the money to genetically modify their children and those who do not: the GenRich and the GenPoor.[vii] He suggests that this new, GenRich species might eventually have as little interest in mating with the old one, as we might have in mating with chimpanzees. Oddly, he fails to point out that this GenRich species would likely further subdivide over time. While such a radical prophecy would only be possible many years down the line, it is still a possibility, particularly if we apply only the ideas of free market capitalism to the genetic engineering technologies that will be created in the coming century. The problems of access to GE technology will inevitably divide societies in some fashion. Those who can afford it will be able to use somatic therapy to correct genetic defects while those who cannot will be left either to older technologies, or to deal with them the way so many people are left to deal with diseases today — by dying from them.
Conjure up any nightmare scenario you want, from GE super humans to sideshow children born with the genes of plants and animals, and all are becoming a scientific, if not socially acceptable, possibility. What will determine their reality is the manner in which we proceed to investigate and implement these new technologies. If we blunder ahead with the optimism of a Modern worldview, entranced by dreams of genetic ‘progress’ and motivated by profit and personal gain, we will most likely reap the disastrous consequences of our insouciance. Likewise, if we abandon all GE technology as some Traditional and Postmodern advocates suggest, we may very well abandon our ability to deal with many of the problems we will face in the coming century, from feeding a burgeoning world population, to mitigating the effects of environmental degradation, to curing once incurable diseases.
An Integral worldview understands that GE technology needs to be guided, not simply by short-term financial profit (which is the definition of the Modern corporate perspective), but must be aimed at creating long-term benefits for all people, with minimal risk. This may mean that some technologies, like genetically modified foods, should be implemented only after they have been proven safe for future generations, while others, like germ line genetic modification, should be abandoned as simply too dangerous to implement with our current wisdom. If we can manage to move forward with GE technology while embracing an Integral worldview, seeing the dangers while motivated by the desire to enhance the welfare of all people without undue risk, then, while we may not achieve any sort of paradise, at least what little paradise that remains will not be lost to us.
The recent advances in genetic engineering would not have been possible without the advances in another technology. Computer technology has changed our lives significantly over the past few decades, but the rate of change we are about to experience in the coming century will make this previous pace seem slow and plodding. As you might expect, the worldview with which we approach this technological transformation will, in large part, inform our reactions to it and our thoughts about how we should proceed with it.
How does changing technology, specifically the advances in computers and robotics, alter our world? An Integral perspective suggests technology will affect all aspects of our being: environmental, personal, social, and cultural. Moreover, these effects will play out differently as these quadrants interact and as the effects percolate between the levels of depth within each. These effects will not be simple extrapolations of the conditions we are currently experiencing. As the pace of change for these technologies increases, so too will the pace with which their effects play out in the world.
Increased speed and memory of computers is a nearly unstoppable condition of technological life. Moore’s law (really an observation, not a hard and fast rule) famously states that computing power doubles every two years. Although our current technology for creating chips will reach its physical limits sometime soon, there are other new technologies (like carbon nanotubes) in the works to continue the revolution, and possibly even accelerate it. Given this ever-increasing computing power, futurist Ray Kurzweil estimates that sometime around the year 2045, computers the size of current desktop models will have computing power equivalent to the human brain.[viii] This strikes many as an overly optimistic prediction, especially as our current global computing prowess in its entirety narrowly matches that of a single human brain.[ix]
Regardless of how quickly computing technology matches the abilities of the human brain, it seems inevitable that it will eventually do so. And, as computing power increases, the reliability and uses for robots will expand. With this expansion, robots will slowly obtain more and more capabilities, eventually equaling or exceeding humans in the ability for manual labor. In many industries this is already the case, but currently, robots are generally single function units. As robotic technology advances, it will be possible to manufacture robotic units that are multifunctional and capable of learning new tasks, thus expanding their industrial uses.[x] In The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin raises a number of concerns about the state of a world with an increasing population but a decreasing need for manual labor. As robotic technology advances, it will continue to displace manual labor across all sectors. The same will become more true for non-manual labor as well. When robotic technology replaces the cheap labor of developing countries, what becomes of these unemployed citizens of the world who have allowed their self-sufficiencies to be parlayed into a dependence on Western companies and consumers? What becomes of the low wage earner in the developed countries when a robot can make a hamburger just as efficiently as a human at less cost per hour? These are problems we should address not as they arrive but well before they emerge so that we can begin to alter our social structures to accommodate them.
Another concern that arises from computers relates to the amount of information they allow us access to. It seems probable that the trend of access to ever-escalating amounts of information will increase apace with computing power. There are plenty of critics, such as Neil Postman and Theodore Roszak, who believe we are currently drowning in a sea of information. This Info-glut will continue, however, as computers become more powerful. They will become able to supply greater assistance in navigating this ocean of information. The advent of preliminary artificial intelligence (AI) programs and adaptive software may make it possible to incorporate this flow of information into the daily life of the average citizen.
Every hour we “live” in a virtual world, whether by being glued to a sitcom, or by surfing the Web, or posting to social media sites, or texting someone, is an hour we are not really engaging with the physical world around us, and we are not fully present with the people in our presence, our wife or husband, our children, or friends. In small doses this is perfectly acceptable, as we all enjoy a little distraction, entertainment, or education. When accepted as the dominant mode of existence, it can sever us from what is real in our life. With computers able to simulate our going anywhere, doing anything, and robotic technology to tend to our needs, will we be living a better life through technology, or will we be living a life as technology?
With the advent of ubiquitous computing, enabled by planting tiny “smart chips” in all manner of products, and the expansion of the Internet, we will have more access to information about the world, but the world will also have more access to information about us. Those collecting this information will then be able to use it however they see fit, unless we place strict rules and regulations in place to protect our privacy. As Stanford law Professor Lawrence Lessig writes about information age social concerns, “There is a part of anyone’s life that is monitored, and there is a part that can be searched. The monitored is that part of one’s daily existence that others see or notice and that others can respond to…The searchable is the part of your life that leaves, or is, a record.”[xi] Both of these aspects of our lives, the monitored and the searched, are becoming increasingly transparent and open to others as our technology becomes more invasive.
The ways in which corporations and governments collect and store information about our personal life and Internet habits using cookies, webbots, email and social media scanning software, public cameras and the like will only expand as the technologies expand. Ubiquitous computing offers not only the possibility that advertising will be specifically targeted to your interests it may also target your weaknesses. Ubiquitous observation, from both corporations and governments, means that fewer and fewer aspects of our private life are truly private. Without a meaningful system of check-and-balances for both government and corporate observers of our personal data streams, private lives, and public activities, privacy may become something only available to those not fortunate enough to be able to afford participation in the global data sphere.
Another technology with the potential to upset the dominant social and economic structures while increasing human productivity is nanotechnology. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and nanotechnology is the precise manipulation of matter on the nano-scale: the molecular and atomic scale. First proposed by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, nanotechnology is based on the premise that there is nothing in the laws of physics that would prohibit us from building machines on the molecular level from individual atoms.
Although still in a nascent stage of development, numerous products, from cosmetics to clothing to improved batteries to more efficient DNA tests, have hit the market over the last few years. Nanotechnology promises extraordinary advances in the manipulation of matter. These advances are, of course, contingent upon other, more immediate advances. Although we have learned how to move individual atoms and have created simple nanomachines, nanomotors, and primitive nanobots built from DNA, we are still a long way from creating the first fully-functioning nanobot. Although it sounds like science fiction, and some scientists are skeptical of its feasibility, the Holy Grail of nanotechnology is a self-replicating nanobot. A self-replicating nanobot would be the size of a large molecule and would not only be able to assemble more versions of itself, but, given the proper instructions, could assemble nearly anything, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, from the bottom up.
There are a number of medical benefits promised by nanotechnology including improved imaging and implants, more effective means of treating disease, repairing cells, and through cells, tissues and whole organs. Nanobots could be injected into your bloodstream and be specifically targeted to destroy cancer cells, or to repair cells that had been damaged by cancer. They could be programmed to seek out cells harboring viruses (like HIV) and disassemble them.
Nanotechnology offers the possibility of greatly increased health and longevity by maintaining and repairing our bodies at a molecular and cellular level. Nanoprobes could be deployed in our bodies to monitor medical conditions and warn patients of imminent dangers. The possible future advantages of nanotechnology for the individual are almost too good to be true.
For some people, possibly many people, they may remain too good to be true. Though nanotechnology is always framed with the notion that it would provide its services at nearly no expense, it is virtually certain that the companies who develop this technology will have invested quite a lot of money to create it, and will expect a considerable profit from its use. This may mean that certain types of nanotechnology, as seems to be the case with all technology, will only be available to those who can afford it. Like genetic engineering, it is possible that a divide may occur between those who have enhanced nano-bodies, capable of extended life, and those who live and die with what nature gave them.
Nanotechnology will radically change the way we alter the world around us. It will place in our hands powers that are almost beyond our imaginations. Not unexpectedly, there are many dangers attendant with the rise and implementation of fully-operational nanotechnology in the world. One of the founders of serious thought about nanotechnology, physicist K. Eric Drexler, optimistically cautioned regarding these dangers in his seminal book, Engines of Creation, that “Sloth — intellectual, moral, and physical — seems perhaps our greatest danger. We can only meet great challenges with great effort. Will enough people make enough effort? Success will not require a sudden universal enlightenment and mobilization. It will require only that a growing community of people strive to develop, publicize, and implement workable solutions — and that they have good and growing measure of success.”[xii]
While this path worked well for complicated technologies, it is difficult to see how we can have as much faith in it working for complex technologies, particularly ones whose immediate effects change whole systems. We are learning from genetic engineering just what is required to cope with a complex technology, and, by the estimation of many critics, we are falling far short of any measure of success. We can only assume the uphill struggle we will face with nanotechnology will be even steeper than the one we are currently fighting against with genetic engineering.
Assuming that the dreams of nanotech-optimists come true, it would be possible for us to completely recreate the physical world to our own designs by the end of the century. It would allow us to build anything with minimal energy…buildings that would last for centuries, new means of transportation, food created from base elements without plants or animals; whatever we could imagine. The nanotech-optimists paint a picture of a near-paradise on Earth, with our every need supplied by nanobots doing our bidding. Of course, there is also the possibility that during the replication process the nanobots will mutate and no longer respond to our commands. Or they might begin to communicate differently with each other, or they may simply malfunction in some fashion. One or two of these damaged bots would be no problem, but since nanobots would have to replicate in the billions and trillions to accomplish the goals we might set for them, defects could easily be passed on to future generations of bots. These rogue nanobots might then make quite a bit of trouble. The most frightening aspect of nanobots is that they can not only assemble things on a molecular level, but disassemble them as well. Thus, a plague of rouge nanobots could conceivably begin taking our world apart from the bottom up. It is also possible that nano-organisms, ones created by nanobots, could out-compete nature’s variety, thus replacing the world with plants that do not contribute to the ecosystem at all, stifling life planet-wide.
This is what is known in nanotech circles as the “grey goo” scenario, whereby the world of living things, while not necessarily turned into grey goo, is left incapable of supporting life. There are plenty of precautions we could take to ensure that this sort of situation wouldn’t arise accidentally, but the real problem is that by creating this kind of technology, we will run the risk of it being used by someone whose intentions are far from benevolent. If we are to ever implement this technology on a widespread basis, we should ensure that everyone who has access to it has only the best intentions for its use. Not surprisingly, best intentions, as well as their results, will be tightly linked to the worldviews of those who implement the technology.
No technology, no matter how powerful, will change our lives for the better without a conscious effort to guide it toward that end. Genetically modifying our foods, livestock, and children without consideration of the full range of consequences will prove more disastrous than liberating. Simply increasing computing power and placing smart chips on everything will not give us more freedom or happiness. We will have to actively seek to mold these and other technologies to our needs — individually, locally, nationally, and globally. We can only do this if we are aware of what these technologies are, how they are advancing, and how they are being implemented. As generic engineering, computers, robotics, and nanotechnology continue to develop, we should begin thinking about their implementations in society in Integral terms, addressing the long-term consequences with equal or greater care than we apply to the consideration of short-term benefits. We need to apply a human lens, and an Integral vision, to our assessment of our technological future.
Contemplation of Future Tech
Have you thought about how technology shapes our world? What are your feelings about genetic engineering in general? What about cloning or stem cell research? Do you think we should engage in stem cell research and organ cloning? How do you feel about gene therapy? Do you feel we should use technology to change the genes of future generations? Do you think we should allow people to design their children within the limits of the technology? Do you think we should be genetically engineering the plants we use to feed the world? What do you see as the benefits of this? What do you feel are the risks?
How to you think computers and robots have changed the world in the last 50 years? Which of these changes do you see as positive and which as negative? How do you feel computers have changed your life, just in the past 10 years? How do you think computers and robots will change your life personally in the next decade? What do you think the impacts will be on social structures in the coming 20 or 30 years?
Are you concerned about robots replacing human labor? Are you concerned about computers achieving a level of artificial intelligence that would allow them to do many common human tasks? What do you think is the relationship between computers, robots, and the environment? How do you think computers will affect the economy? What about communications? What about your daily life?
How do you think nanotechnology will affect you personally? What about your children and grandchildren? What effects do you think it will have on culture in your nation and around the world? What about various social structures? How do you see it impacting medicine? What about manufacturing? What effects can you foresee for the economics of nations and the world? What dangers would you expect from this technology? What benefits do you think it will provide? What do you think are the ethical considerations of the development and use of this technology?
How do you think that your worldview informs your thinking about these different technologies?
Action: Take some time and write down all the ways you can imagine how genetic engineering, computers, robotics, and nanotechnology might change your life and the world. Don’t worry if it begins to sound like science fiction; the idea is to get a gauge, not only of how much the world could change, but how you feel about it. Make sure your list includes all of the different potential advantages and dangers of each technology. Take some time to go over your list. How do you feel about these technological transformations? Are you depicting a world you think will be better to live in? Which changes on your list make you feel ethically uneasy?
[i] Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century, p. 36
[v] For a simple overview of the science supporting GMOs see these two web sites: http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/p/450-published-safety-assessments.html and http://rameznaam.com/2013/04/28/the-evidence-on-gmo-safety/
[vi] For an overview of some of these studies, see: http://www.globalresearch.ca/ten-scientific-studies-proving-gmos-can-be-harmful-to-human-health/5377054 and http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/02/do-gmo-crops-have-lower-yields and for a concise argument against GMOs see Mae-Wan Ho’s GMO Free: Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply (Square One Publishers, 2014)
[vii] See: Lee Silver Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond the Brave New World, Weidnefeld & Nicolson, 1998
[viii] See: Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, (Penguin Books, 2006)
[x] See: http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/02/google-teams-with-foxconn-to-build-robots-that-replace-human-workers/. For a glimpse at what the future of self-learning robotics may look like see: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/business/robots-and-humans-learning-to-work-together.html?_r=0
[xi] Lawrence Lessig, Code, p. 143
[xii] K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation, p. 201
The Alchemy of World and Soul is available at: