Why we must suppress technological progress
Hiroshima. Credit: Junko Kimura / Getty   

In the summer of 1588 an attempt was made on the life of Elizabeth I. It succeeded.

Not in our world, of course, but in that of Pavane – a novel by the science fiction author Keith Roberts.

Strictly speaking, Pavane isn’t sci-fi, but ‘alt history‘ – a fictional setting in which the course of world events takes a different turn. The best-known examples include Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Unlike those two novels, which ask ‘what if the Nazis had won the Second World War?’, Pavane asks ‘what if the Catholics had won the Reformation?’ Roberts’ answer is that with an all-powerful church in charge of all of western Europe, the pace of technological and social change would have been much slower. (About a hundred years slower in the novel’s parallel version of the 20th century.)

One could read Pavane as a last gasp of old-fashioned English anti-Catholicism. But there’s a twist [spoilers]: In a coda to the novel it is revealed that the church authorities had fore-knowledge of how the 20th century would turn out if they didn’t act to slow down technological progress. Looking back across the possible timelines, Roberts has one of his characters utter these chilling words:

“Did she [the Church] hang and burn? A little, yes. But there was no Belsen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.”

It’s pure speculation, of course. And, from a serious historical point of view, one can take issue with some or all of its counterfactual logic. Yet it asks a supremely important question: not the ‘what if?’ that is the premise of the novel, but whether civilisations should ever suppress science and technology.

Further reading

Is Europe on the brink of a new Thirty Years' War?

By Peter Franklin

As children of modernity, the very idea strikes us as scandalous – and also ridiculous: something that we shouldn’t and couldn’t do even if we wanted to (which, of course, we wouldn’t).

And yet, as I hope to show, we can and we must.

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Can you guess who wrote this?

“I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a terrible danger to the race.”

Adolf Hitler? Oswald Mosley? No, I’m afraid it was Winston Churchill – in a 1910 letter to HH Asquith.

It’s surprising that the Left-wing Churchill-bashers of our own time haven’t made more of his support for eugenics. But, then, many of their own heroes and heroines from this period were also up to their necks in it. In fact, it’s hard to find many public intellectuals at the time who spoke up against eugenics. GK Chesterton was one of the few exceptions.

The conventional wisdom was that the use of sterilisation to eliminate congenital ‘weaknesses’ from the population was a reasonable, indeed progressive, thing to do. There were some experts who had doubts as to the practicality or effectiveness of such measures, but few with moral qualms. The theories were put into action in many countries including that exemplar of social democracy, Sweden – where something like 15,000 people were sterilised as a condition of release from institutions (with a further 5,000 or more sterilised in other coercive circumstances).

That was, of course, as nothing compared to the horrors of Nazi eugenics. The post-war world was shocked to its senses, and though not all eugenic practices came to an end, the respectability of eugenicism as an intellectual and political movement was destroyed. In the decades since, the taboo has endured even as our knowledge of human genetics has grown – and therefore the theoretical basis for eugenic policies.

Nor is it just theory. We have tools for the manipulation of DNA that the eugenicists of the early 20th century could not imagine. And yet we place strict controls on how we use them – especially in regard to human DNA.

Those controls don’t go as far as some people would like. We license various manipulations of early stage human embryos – including cloning. We use genetic screening to identify foetal abnormalities – which are then eliminated from the human population through abortion. In Nordic countries such as Denmark, the termination rate for Downs Syndrome babies is close to 100%. However, such procedures are presented as a matter of life saving medical research or reproductive rights, not eugenics. The Danish government has explicitly denied that it has a programme to eliminate people with Downs Syndrome from the population (though, in effect, that is what they are very close to ‘achieving’).

The range of traits, both physical and psychological, whose incidence we could interfere with is expanding. Writing for UnHerd this week, Tom Chivers explains just how close we are to making genetic edits to boost IQ. He also suggests that the Chinese government is taking a disturbingly close interest in the technology.

Further reading

Should we edit genes to boost IQ?

By Tom Chivers

Yet despite our growing capabilities, we have yet to use them to re-engineer humanity. We can’t be sure what’s going on in clandestine laboratories, of course – but not a single government anywhere in the world is admitting to a policy of modern day eugenics.

So, yes, we do suppress technology – and the eugenic application of genetics is not the only example. In fact, there is an ever-expanding array of national and international agreements to constrain the development and application of a number of different technologies.

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A key motivation for the actions of the Catholic Church in Pavane was to stifle the development of nuclear technology until mankind was ready for such knowledge. One might argue that the real history of the nuclear age shows that we had no need of a techno-inquisition. After all, we’re still here, aren’t we? Yes, we are, but only through luck (or Providence). Nuclear weapons have been developed, tested, stockpiled and used in anger. We know that there were a number of Cold War incidents in which we came terrifyingly close to an accidental Armageddon.

Further reading

Don’t sweat the small stuff, or why the ‘New Optimists’ are only half right

By Peter Franklin

Nor are we done with this nightmare. Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented, and, in fits and starts, they continue to proliferate. That things aren’t much, much worse is thanks to the internationally agreed restrictions that we place on nuclear technology – for instance those mandated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Other treaties restricting military technologies include the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Outer Space Treaty. But it’s not just weapons and potential weapons that we seek to control in this way.

Climate change treaties, most recently, the Paris Agreement, imply far-reaching restrictions on our use of fossil fuels and therefore the technologies that extract, refine and use those fuels. To meet their targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the nations of the Earth have effectively committed themselves to leaving most of world’s hydrocarbons in the ground.

That includes energy sources that we haven’t exploited yet, such as methane hydrates, which could be available in vast quantities if only we had an affordable means of doing so. However, developing the necessary technology would take investment – which climate change treaties effectively disincentivise by sign-posting a future in which it will be illegal to carry on burning fossil fuels at anything like the current level (at least not without carbon carbon capture and storage). This creates a huge political risk for investors who are therefore likely to take their money elsewhere.

This too is tech suppression – and, again, it’s for all the right reasons.

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In mid 1970s, an Iranian-American author called Fereidoun M Esfandiary legally changed his name to FM-2030 (no, that’s not a typo). He regarded traditional naming conventions as a relic of the past – and he was all about the future.  When he died in 2000, he left instructions for his body to be cryogenically preserved in the hope that scientific progress would one day enable his resurrection.

Further reading

The most influential religion you’ve never heard of

By Peter Franklin

A more reliable legacy might be the ideas he left behind. One of these was the notion that the politics of Left and Right will be superseded by the politics of Up and Down. ‘Up’ stands the onwards-and-upwards of technological optimism. ‘Down’, I suppose, stands for the downbeat or down-to-earth attitudes of technology pessimists and sceptics. ‘Up-wingers’ are a motley crew including transhumanist libertarians, fully automated luxury communists and believers in the ‘Singularity‘; while ‘down-wingers’ range from religious conservatives to anti-automation trade unionists to deep green environmentalists.

FM-2030’s big idea is proving prophetic. For a start, the old Left-versus-Right political divide has never looked so obsolete. The new politics of Open-versus-Closed may be more about the globalisation enabled by technology than technology itself – but that could soon change. Advances in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence and genetics have such profound implications that it’s difficult not to see technopolitics moving front and centre.

Could we see a political realignment with a radical Up-wing party facing off against their reactionary Down-wing opponents? Well, I’m not sure that the Down-wingers would accept that terminology, which defines the debate according toUp-wing assumptions. So, here’s a different and better way of thinking about these issues: active versus passive. As a democratic society we can either passively accept the technological choices that others would like to make on our behalf – or we take an active part in the decision-making process.

Further reading

The Amish: America's most sophisticated users of technology

By Peter Franklin

Moreover, the real choice is not between progress and no progress, but between different paths of technological development. That’s because in suppressing one technological path we can open up opportunities along another. For instance, while climate change agreements weaken the case for investment in polluting technologies they have the opposite effect on clean technologies. As restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions have tightened, we’ve seen sustained progress across a range of low carbon technologies including renewables, smart grids, energy storage and electric vehicles.

Though we may recoil at the idea of suppressing technology, our horror presupposes that the avenues for technological progress are limited and that the resources we can devote to pursuing them are not. In fact, the opposite is true: there is no shortage of paths to the future, but we lack the means to take all of them. Even if there is no ethical objections to any of them, we would still have to choose.

Taking the time to consider our options – and thinking through the consequences – is anything but regressive.