Monday, December 12, 2011

Whither Our Technological Utopia?

At fairly regular intervals it seems I stumble across someone writing about the importance of the humanities--and that math and science and economic growth are muscling their way into everything, to the detriment of human flourishing. This thesis was best articulated by C.P. Snow in his classic essay The Two Cultures, and more recently Mark Slouka's spectacular essay Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. The trouble, we're told, is the jettisoning of humanistic study for its own sake in favor of economic growth and national competitiveness as the sole ends in public life.

Yet in the past few years I've noticed something strange. More and more math, science, and technology advocates are making essentially the same argument for their own side: that the monolithic goal of economic growth is stripping from the world the intellectual justification of their pursuits. The wonder of science and technology has always been felt most strongly through big, paradigm-shifting advancements, and for whatever reason their frequency has declined lately. Peter Thiel addresses some of these issues in his sprawling essay The End of the Future; Neal Stephenson, in his essay Innovation Starvation, bemoans the loss of inspirational national projects and critiques the current mood in science fiction.

A recent Scientific American article suggests that NASA, with its vague ambitions and neutered horizons, should repurpose itself to identify dangerous asteroids and develop defenses against them. While this is certainly a worthy goal given the costs and benefits, such a change would give me pause. Must NASA have a specific, clearly measurable goal? Is a vague and open-ended mandate not what inspires and defines the agency? Perhaps I'm just a softie--a big asteroid project might be better than no project at all.

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