Friday, June 9, 2017

Technology Versus Diversity

A few months ago I was reading a book that suggested that we are closing in on the point where life expectancy could annually increase by more than a year. To reiterate that, if we reach a point where life expectancy increases by more than a year annually, it might prompt some -- despite the fallacy -- to muse about the increased possibility of immortality.  That is just one example of how technology has changed our grasp of the possible. It is also a graphic indication of how alluring technology's promise can be, despite its record of bringing as many challenges as benefits, if not more.

Whether it is benefits of rewriting genes or using other emerging treatments to minimize the threat and damage of certain diseases, the pursuit of progress in health and medicine is hard to argue against. The pain and suffering with any serious illness is going to be fought, perhaps by any means necessary, and few people would argue against that. Eschewing the benefits of modern treatments and interventions might be considered irrational, and individually, it would be hard to justify foregoing treatment or interventions to prevent disease or, for that matter, disability.

One thing that we, individually, overlook is how technology introduces conformity into our lives, societies and potentially, when we talk about genetic interventions, into the species.  The resistance to aging, or the fear of it, is something that goes directly against the tenets of wabi-sabi, which is willing to embrace and welcome aging.  At a time when the benefits of these technologies are readily available, it may seem at best, quaint to decline the offer of some form of extended or eternal youth and health.  There is already a degree of disdain for individuals or religious groups who decline certain types of medical treatment because of their beliefs.  It is conceivable that we see a time in the not-too-distant future when a society may express the same disdain toward individuals who forego the interventions that would allow them to extend their youthfulness, going so far as to regard them as a burden on society for declining this possibility.

In the Richard Powers' novel Generosity, the possibility of a genetic orientation toward happiness is explored. The story is driven by the discovery of a refugee from a war-torn country who appears to be innately happy and therein the promise that a gene splice could be identified and offered (at a price) as a root of lasting happiness. In a larger discussion of genetics, beyond the mere possibility of genetically engineering emotions one of the characters says: "the minute you tell prospective parents, 'We'll give your child the traits you want and get rid of the ones you don't,' you turn humanity into a fast-food franchise." (Powers, Generosity p. 94) which is one existential risk.  Another risk is the unknown imbalances we would be creating by tweaking our genetic make-up in favour of certain apparent goods.  As the movie Inside Out would assert, there is a place for "negative" emotions such as anger and sadness.

Going beyond the unknown imbalances that would be created, there could be a time in the future when there is similar disregard for families that forego editing their children's genetic make up to avoid disease or disability.  The whole notion of "burden on society" may get expanded for the sake of arguing that a child with a physical or intellectual impairment.  From a wabi-sabi perspective, however, the term "differently-abled" would not merely be a bit of PC-speak to avoid certain words, but an expression of the value that is placed on imperfection and -- consequently -- diversity rather than a desire for conformity.  From the wabi-sabi perspective, the argument would be made that a proposed genetic or technological ideal of what humans are would be arbitrary and even pose limits on mankind's potential.

Beyond Powers' arguments in his fiction and the tenets of wabisabi are the observations of Temple Grandin, author and animal rights activist if I can leave out a few handfuls of the multiple hyphens that could extend her introduction.  In her book, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life With Autism, she makes the case that the intellectual diversity that has come with differently-abled minds throughout human evolution has blessed us with the scientific advances that have brought us to where we are today and, ironically, to the dilemmas we face now that we have the technological ability to reduce or eliminate that diversity amongst humanity because certain atypical mindsets or patterns of behaviour could be regarded as inconvenient or unfashionable.

While wabi-sabi might not strive to be a humanitarian line of thought, there is a clear respect for nature and all that it encompasses - from beauty to cruelty - this would extend to include people's genetic make-up and therefore advise avoid tampering with it.  Such tampering would ultimately make people manufactured goods and result in a consistency or conformity that would ultimately be sterile, perhaps in several senses of the word.