We’re going back in time, over twenty years, to revisit a previously unpublished essay written in Dawang, a “town” of, at the time, ~110,000, located in the Shandong countryside, China.
On my desk I have a dragonfly. It is about 2.5 inches from head to tail. Its eyes and thorax are the color of the flesh of a lime in sunlight. What I presume to be veins and struts subdivide its four transparent wings in a pattern that reminds me of the new hillside subdivisions I’ve seen while flying into LA.
The dragonfly seems to barely touch my desk. It rests on three legs and the tip of one wing—next to a laptop and a 100 Mbps Internet connection. One afternoon I found the dragonfly dead on a road between a school and a dormitory. It had no signs of injury; it looked like life had simply left it and left it there between the buildings. When I’d brought the dragonfly to my desk, I connected my laptop to a digital camera and pointed the lens at its wings. Bringing the dragonfly up on my computer screen and zooming in until its head approached the size of mine allowed me to do several things. I could see in brilliant detail the construction of this amazing creature, and very quickly study and marvel at its beauty. I could call my son, who is nearly five, to the computer to share in my awe, and hopefully teach him a thing or two about the dragonfly. And I could snap some digital photos of the dragonfly, from different angles and in different lighting schemes, thereby “creating” something of beauty myself.
As far as we know, all but the tiniest speck of the universe is hostile to the life that’s in us and that was not long ago in the dragonfly. Against that hostility life struggles to gain and maintain existence. It can never let up, for that hostility constantly pulls on it, like gravity. In individual instances, that hostility always wins, always bringing life down to inevitable death. Yet Life persists.
I can only marvel at the fortunate string of events that allowed Life to emerge when a dark, perhaps infinitesimally small, singularity rippled and exploded. Subsequent reactions and interactions between subatomic particles and radiation allowed atoms, molecules, proto-galaxies, and planets to form in a sequence that brought together on planet Earth just the right mix of elements, heat, light, air, water, and gravity… to create you, me, and the dragonfly on my desk.
The beauty of this story compels me to believe that in spite of the danger we seem wont to pose to the rest of the natural world—the way we pillage for our booty and then seemingly toy with nature’s building blocks in the hope of rebuilding what we’ve undone—the insatiable hunger of Life to be and to know won’t let us bring about our own destruction.
Unfortunately, we’re giving ourselves plenty of reasons to despair that the outcome might be otherwise.
One of our problems, I fear, is that although we worry about the future, we feel and decide and live in the short term. I see it in my own battle between desire and need. I recycle; I don’t want to be wasteful. But I also want the newest laptop, a vintage car, and an exotic home. On a theoretical level I think everyone should have the opportunity to have these same things. And yet I know that our planet could not possibly sustain a global population that consumes as much energy and raw material per capita as I do.
The dragonfly lies on my desk next to my laptop and a 100 Mbps Internet connection. My desk is in the Chinese countryside, one hour away from a city of one million people that none of my friends and family in North America have ever heard of. I didn’t put the dragonfly on my desk because I’m a scientist. I’m in the software business. Not because I love it, but because of my need to survive.
Here in the Chinese countryside the everyday story of survival is told in more basic terms than I was used to at home in Vancouver. But most of the people I have met here struggle to do more than simply subsist: many are striving for the lifestyle the West has so assiduously held up as the ideal.
Toward this end great clumps of them are succeeding, at least in this part of China. But in their efforts I see many of my hopes for humanity and our future challenged. Many people here pursue a Western standard of living with an effort that has reinforced the prison of their short-term perspective and left them unable to see or to care enough about the consequences. The tap water here smells like garbage. Trash piles up in canals. Crop genes are modified and the new species quickly planted. The sky has been blue twice in a year, and the air is always heavy with smoke and chemicals. Most products, including buildings, are constructed for quick use and disposal. Nothing is built to last.
I don’t blame the people here for doing what they’re doing. With all the gadgets I have dragged into town, I look like a king. They want what I have, and I can’t ask them, for the sake of us all, to deny themselves at least a shot at those treasures. The problem is when I consider the shortsightedness here and in Canada and all points between, it looks like we’re digging our own grave—or worse, our children’s.
Friends of mine say that education won’t save us. I disagree. But I hasten to add that all education must include an admission that humans are a part of nature—not an invading force. Why? Because if we deny that humans are a part of nature then our efforts to change and conserve will forever come up against a stone wall: ourselves. Admitting that we are a part of nature forces us to own up to the fact that, while we might temper our lifestyles, we will do almost anything we can to avoid forsaking our power and comfort now for our descendants’ long-term survival.
I need look no further than myself for proof. I am conscious of my consumption, but I have not realistically attempted to downsize my materialistic lifestyle. Instead, I focus on today’s career and investment options that can ensure my family lives in the wealthiest, healthiest, most comfortable surroundings in the world—above and away from the polluted parts of the world.
This goal of mine does not mean that education is a failure. By my account education has been a success, for while I persist in building a career that will put my family in the wealthiest, healthiest, most comfortable surroundings in the world, my education has left me unable to believe in my heart that any of these can secure my family’s comfort, joy, and safety.
It is with great trepidation that I have begun to look more closely at problems like power consumption, climate change, fossil fuel use, pollution, water supply, and genetic modification. And it is with even greater trepidation that I have begun to embrace their solution: us.
By admitting that we are part of nature I can see that we—with our ability to evolve through our tools and our knowledge—are our own salvation. This is not an easy conclusion to reach, for the current trajectory of our evolution points us at many of the Frankenstein-looking monsters (we think) we want to avoid. Things like AI and bioengineered body parts scare us—and remind us of the industrial habits that got us in our current mess.
But the fact is we are on track for a digitized world where we might one day store our DNA on a disk and order our replacement organs on the Internet. I don’t believe we will or can accept this technological change without question, but we must accept the vision: that humankind does and must evolve, and our tools and technology are an intrinsic part of that evolution.
Some will argue that by counting on our evolution to save us we are sidestepping our problems. That’s not true. Our evolution—including our technological evolution—has never stopped, which goes squarely against the argument many will level against our technology: that it is unnatural.
Our technology can be scary because it ensures that the world tomorrow will be vastly different than today. This is scary to me because I want my children to have a childhood I recognize. But I have to admit that already they do not, just as I did not have my parents’ childhood.
Scary? Certainly. How can it be easy to accept that our children could become cyborgs? But unnatural? No. We can’t escape from the fact that technology (which in many forms is presently very deadly to our habitat) is a part of us. With our test tube babies, we’re already abominations to medieval man. So, the issue is not, Do we want our kids to be cyborgs? but that we want our kids to be safe and happy.
Politicians—who deal in the dangerous currency of the short term—are not the ones showing us the way to safety and happiness. Rather, the people leading this trek—the ones who I want my children to admire—are the men and women who already realize that technology is a part of us and that we are a part of nature. These are the brilliant scientists and technologists who excel in their fields, who love and admire this world, who want to understand it and know it and know it deeper.
I have a lot to learn. A chip implant that helps me unlock the full power of my mind would help. But for now, my pursuit of knowledge about our world starts with the dragonfly, my laptop, and my digital camera. No doubt some people will say that my computer and camera are coming between me and nature, separating me from it. To them I’m tempted to ask how my computer and my camera are any different than a magnifying glass. But I prefer to simply let my dragonfly photos speak for themselves.
There’s a fair amount of optimism in that piece. Was it misplaced hope? Naïveté? Probably some of both, with a sizable amount resting on the promise science and tech presented in 2002. Even in the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown, science/tech (innovation) + business (our most efficient means of distributing capital) looked like a path to a better future.
The optimism hasn’t persisted, despite the many ways both science and tech have lived up to their promise. Look at the advances made in biology, materials science, AI, semiconductors, transfer speeds, environmental sciences, clean energy, and on and on and on—and the world is a different and, in many ways, much better place today than in 2002. But the blind faith that sci/tech in bed with business will deliver all of us to safety and happiness, that has not lasted through the years. It has been chop-blocked at the knees by massively wasteful diversions like NFTs and cryptocurrency. And to some extent even Apple, which has become a tech fashion house directed by brilliant engineers and supply managers.
These blackmarks are inherent to science and tech only to the extent they are symptoms of larger sociological problems. The financialization of the world and the increasingly hollow, opiate-like, and destructive pledge of capitalism. I call these problems sociological because they are systems built on human choice. They have access to all aspects of our human nature. Unfortunately, over decades the financial system that functioned by appealing to our greed has destroyed its master, and (counter to the capitalist propaganda) has systematized the extinction of what was once known as free enterprise—the concept that any hard-working individual could make a good life with ingenuity, great service, and a quality product.
A few examples:
- Silicon Valley is a con
- Private equity is a scam
- The efficiency of capital is a myth (though in this case the inefficiency stemmed in part from an authoritarian government’s meddling in what international business leaders only a few years ago called the purest capitalist economy in the world)
While these stories are in their way depressing, their existence shows that those of us perhaps insanely hopeful about capitalism (plus many others) have embraced the real world, and in our disillusionment are acknowledging the shallowness, hypocrisy, and destructiveness of this Frankenstein. Such an awakening opens the way for alternatives, which have not been totally obliterated, to flourish. One example of what refined or reformed capitalism might look like—what might inspire it to thrive—comes from tech company, DeepMind, a unit of Alphabet.
Yes, DeepMind is the company helmed by Demis Hassabis and behind AlphaGo, the AI system that mastered the ancient game of Go. But far more importantly, it is the company that developed AlphaFold, a software platform that predicts protein structures. It does so with astounding speed and accuracy. Yet for all its elegance and power, the best part of AlphaFold was that DeepMind gave away the source code, super charging the effect of an already exponential technology.
In terms of AI and the potential for science and health, AlphaFold is an incredible achievement that should renew/bolster our faith in sci/tech. In terms of capitalism, DeepMind’s decision to open source AlphaGo should renew our faith that sci/tech + (some form) of business might yet deliver us to a better future.