The rationalists have been gaining ground rapidly over the past couple of decades. Atheism is, increasingly, equated with intellectualism*. At the same time (and probably not unrelated) we are surrounded by and immersed in technology more than ever, and more every day. We are urged and encouraged to believe in the progress of science and technology as the route to a better world, a better life – and it could get us there, it really could. I believe that too. But it’s not necessarily going to. Not any more than is the deity of your choice.
Some areas of science have had a religious air about them for some time – those who believe the Singularity is coming in 2045 sometimes sound a lot like those who believe the Rapture is coming, only with some science (and a whole lot of hope) as backup. I’m not saying AI will never happen, not at all. I’m just saying, blind belief that true AI is just around the corner (as I’ve written before) blinds us to a lot of the challenges we face today, and tomorrow, and until the day it finally lands.
But the line between science and faith is blurry across a lot more areas than Artificial Intelligence. Think of it this way: if I am unable or unwilling to engage with the science that lies behind the things I take for granted and/or believe will happen, then is there any difference between me believing in that and me believing in one or more dieties? Technically, sure, but from a social impact perspective? We quote Clarke’s laws all the time, but how often do we consider their impact on contemporary society? A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It’s not surprising, then, that it elicits a similar response.
People will do some crazy shit in the name of what they believe in. They’ll mutilate their daughters, bomb doctors’ offices, shun children bearing cake. Fortunately science isn’t asking us to do any of those things. But we are regularly asked to more or less blindly trust the benevolence of the technology that’s placed into our lives and environments. And that’s probably not a very healthy thing for us to do. Think about how upset we got about Facebook’s data experiments. Now think about a company whose iPhone plugin takes your vitals and a tiny blood sample every morning, or a company whose helpful thermostat gathers data on everything you do, everyone who enters the house with their smartphones, and so on and so on. Or what about injectable technology that actually lives inside your body and reports back on your health?
All of these things are miraculous and brilliant and have enormous potential to improve our lives. They also have potential to make life quite dark and difficult for us. It’s all in how the technology is applied, and not every technology-owning business cares about the people at the other end, no matter what their straplines might say. Ethics and corporate success are uneasy bedfellows.
So it’s down to us, not just designers and technologists but users, customers, normal people, people on the street, whatever the term du jour is. As designers and technologists, we have a responsibility to help ensure that tech is put in the service of people and not the other way round. But equally, the average consumer of this technology should be asking questions, challenging their own assumptions, properly engaging, thinking critically and yes, scientifically. Because you can put anything on a pedestal and worship it blindly, but the way we make real progress is by challenging, investigating, asking why.
*For the record, I’m an agnostic. I reckon I can no more disprove the existence of any particular higher power than I can prove it.