That suspiciously friendly demon
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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
I was going through some back issues of this newspaper recently when I stumbled on a page printed almost exactly twenty years ago.
In this column, published at the beginning of 2003, I commented at length on the practicalities of human cloning, as we appeared on the brink of that breakthrough at the time.
Having additional versions of ourselves, I suggested, would be enormously practical, as we could easily be in two or more places at once.
It had been a few years since Dolly the Sheep had been created in a laboratory (she’s stuffed and in a museum somewhere now), and scientists had managed in various other cloning experiments to grow human tissue on things, notably an ear on a mouse.
But no one’s made another person yet.
When we consider it, very few of the fantastic inventions that we thought must surely come within twenty years – no matter the year we imagined them – have actually materialized. We still don’t have flying cars; we don’t travel routinely between Earth and other planets; our homes aren’t filled with robots doing all our chores; nobody is planting microchips in us to feed vital information into our brains; nobody teleports anything anywhere; and we don’t have X-Ray vision.
At the same time, we are still butchering the rain forests, allowing vital species of animals to go extinct, haven’t solved world hunger, haven’t cured half the diseases we thought should be gone by now, still rely on fossil fuels, and can still hear Lionel Richie. Meanwhile, we have done some things that we either couldn’t have predicted or didn’t imagine would be developed to such a scale.
Although cell phones were invented fifty years ago and the little devices we now carry became commonplace twenty years ago, it is only in the last decade that we have become frighteningly dependent upon them. Not so long ago, it would have been completely fine to leave your phone at home while you went shopping or out for a night on the town or even to school. If you were to do that today, people would think there’s something wrong with you. We don’t talk about flying cars as much as we used to. Why? Because we aren’t all that interested in flying anywhere that modern jet airliners don’t go. Few of us really want to see Borneo in person. We don’t think much of popping over to someone’s house for a coffee and a chat, either. Why? Because can do that on our phones and enjoy our own coffee in our pajamas.
And Borneo at the same time.
Far-off destinations aren’t all that mysterious anymore. We can just dial them up on a search engine (you know which one; it’s basically become a verb now) and learn all we think we’d like to know.
Not imperceptibly but rather rapidly, it seems, the broad, colorful, educational and enriching world that lay at our feet in the dawn of the communication age has narrowed to whatever will fit on a little glass screen that drops into our trouser pocket. If it’s not on there, we don’t care to know about it.
What’s more, we now decide whether we’d like to learn something and what we’d like to learn. We may be masters of the universe, but we have become ever more selective over what elements of the universe will be palatable to us. You may believe we are stronger as a race today than just a little while ago because we overcame a pandemic that might have wiped out nations, but I challenge you to consider whether we are genuinely healthier mentally than our forefathers.
Ignore for a moment some of the brilliant things that the human race has accomplished in the past two decades, like looking deeper into space, harnessing nuclear fusion, and developing vaccines; ask yourself instead whether you are properly broader of mind, more knowledgeable at your very core, than you were before…Or whether everything you believe you need to know comes from a little gadget in your pocket, and whether you might have surrendered control of your enlightenment to that suspiciously friendly demon.
The only things that are on your phone or that you can find on it, after all, are put there by other people.
This may be the time to resolve neither frivolous nor selfish things, but to live with our eyes a little more open.