By Stefan Nekvapil
Today I woke up, connected with friends and strangers from around the world, and then I got out of bed. We live in an extraordinary time; our maps use satellites to tell us where we are, our wars are waged with remotely operated drones, our surgeons use 3D printed body parts to repair us and we live and love through digital social spaces. The future is now! On the other hand, though, it isn’t. We’re still dying from cancer, dementia and car accidents, we’re still killing and mistreating animals for food and leather, we’re still producing our clothes in sweatshops across the world and we still can’t remember where we put our keys.
Technology in the future may be able to solve these problems for us, by better understanding the physiology of the human body, having artificially intelligent cars that drive themselves or growing meat in labs. We will be able to enhance our intelligence, memory and knowledge vastly beyond what we can comprehend right now. These future technologies are all not only possible, but inevitable. It’s going to happen. In fact, most of it is already happening right now, but in controlled testing environments.
I can’t even imagine the technologies that will be everyday life for future humanity; it will be so advanced and beyond my realm of experience that when I try to picture what life will be like I’ll be wrong. I think of Back to the Future 2, a predictive work of recent times, depicting a future with flying cars, fuel engines that run on waste material and compact, dehydrated pizzas which only take a few seconds to prepare. The future shown in Back to the Future 2 is actually October 21, 2015! I look around and none of those things are in my life. Instead, I have a smartphone that fits in my pocket and has access to most of the documented knowledge of humanity. Even though we haven’t attained the predicted future technologies, we have other astounding technologies that weren’t envisioned by the future thinkers of 1989, when Back to the Future 2 was made. Similarly, anything that I imagine of the future, like a robot with whom I could fall in love, may not come about but instead something equally incredible and unforeseen will emerge. Back to the Future 2 also predicts large, flat screen televisions, fingerprint security and one-touch payment with a card, all things we have now, and have only become widespread in the last five years. So, too, will some of our predictions on future technologies be accurate.
We are constantly challenged, and have been constantly challenged, by the development of technologies and the cultural changes they bring to our societies. As humans adopted agriculture and domestication, for example, we grappled with new ethical and moral questions on living a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle; questions about owning land and crops, and who had what rights in our new society. Currency, books, electricity and cars have all come with their own challenges, many of which we’re still dealing with today. In this way, future technologies are not unique; all past technologies have also brought change. In Steiner’s lecture Technology and Art: Their Bearing on Modern Culture, he says,
‘Modern life’ — as we call it — makes a strong impact upon those who have been torn away from any direct connection with Nature by life in cities and towns. And it is common knowledge that ever since the onset of this modern life, [people] have been apprehensive about its effect upon the material as well as the spiritual progress of humanity.
So we can see that fundamentally there is nothing new in our challenge to accept new technologies. The main difference is the pace at which change occurs. In times long past, one change could take a hundred years. When cars were invented they were expensive and the roads were bad, it took decades before they were a common form of transport. Computers began as huge, slow machines and it took years before they could perform complex tasks. It seems only yesterday to many that CDs were the new big thing, but they’re already scarce. The first iPhone was released in 2007 and now, 8 years later smartphones are ubiquitous around the world. As time goes on and our technology advances, it becomes easier to develop new technologies. That is the important bit; the faster and more sophisticated our technology becomes, the faster it will continue to develop. It used to take several generations for technology to become widely adopted and part of everyday life, so culturally and socially we could adapt. Already now we are seeing we have less time to adjust to new technologies, and this will only accelerate in the future.
Whether it’s our thoughts being linked with and aided by a computer, nanobots in our blood dealing with cancer or modifications in our DNA so that we don’t experience allergies, our notions of what it is to be human must necessarily be challenged. Or perhaps it’s artificial intelligence (AI) so advanced that computers are capable of inspiration, imagination and spirituality. The question that arises then, is, “How can we find our way as conscious, moral and spiritual humans and citizens of the world when the very idea of humanity is changing so quickly?”
Moral Technologies conference
To engage with this question, the initiative Moral Technologies was born. Facilitated by Seed Australia (www.seedaustralia.net.au), the goal of Moral Technologies is to bring people of all ages across Australia together to explore the very complex problems we face in an ever-changing, technologically dominant world.
Earlier this year, Rose Nekvapil gave talks in several cities around Australia on Moral Technologies: partly to begin to raise awareness of the questions, partly for her own exploration of those questions, and partly to prepare for a conference in 2016. The Moral Technologies conference is to be lead by Nicanor Perlas, who has mobilised civil society movements in disabling government plans to build nuclear power plants and introduce GMOs in The Phillipines. He has advocated for biodynamic farming and brought social three folding into government policy. One of Nicanor’s main interests is now the human being in relation to the future of technology, particularly in regards to AI. He calls this theme Moral Technologies.
On 26-28 of September this year, a group of 9 people from Sydney, Perth and Melbourne came together to create the intention of the four day conference. On that weekend, we had so many inspiring, challenging and explorative conversations that everyone agreed the goal of the Moral Technologies conference should be to create a bigger, more in depth version of that weekend. The best way I can think to give an insight into the ground covered is to provide two examples of reflections on the theme.
This new world of technological advancements bring with it new ways of human behaviour. I read and hear about artificial intelligence, bionic hearts and robotic limbs…these completely new ways of doing things have no history yet; there are no reference points, no rules, and therefore no certainty. No wonder we might feel scared and out of control in the face of new technologies…
I picture all of this as a mirror. In the face of new technologies I get to ask questions about what it means to be human. I get to observe my own and others’ responses to, and interactions with, technology. How far would I go? Where would I draw the line? Would I accept a bionic heart? But most importantly for me, this mirror gives me an opportunity to develop health and wholeness within my own system so that I am better prepared to deal with the uncertainties that are (certainly) coming.
Not only are we shaped by things, we have the power to be shapers of the world, too. For me, life has always become lifeless and meaningless when I’ve felt at the whim of things, feeling disconnected from the power to be a shaper and creator my own destiny and life. Whether that be living at the affect of a job, social and cultural pressures and expectations, technology, etc. To not feel, and be realising my own creative powers, is to not feel fully alive and connected to life. Nothing else can fulfil this, no amount of Facebook connection, no amount of information and answers on Google ever has fulfilled the longing I’ve always felt to be natural to my own humanity; to be actualising my full human potential. No amount of technological advancement will ever solve this, the problem will always remain until I take up the work of being a shaper of this life. I don’t think more information is the answer, what’s needed is greater wisdom and understanding and this doesn’t come from Google, I believe it’s something that we discover within us. I believe our capabilities as human beings are unlimited, that this piece of human hardware and software is the most incredible piece of technology ever envisaged.
Through lectures by Nicanor Perlas, workshops by a variety of contributors, freeform and participant-led learning, games, reflection and much more, participants of the 2016 Moral Technologies conference will begin to explore their own relationship to current and future technologies, humanity and morality. In Steiner’s lecture I mentioned earlier, Technology and Art: Their Bearing on Modern Culture, he urges us not to shy away from the trials of a new and changing world:
The real remedy lies, not in allowing the forces of the soul to weaken and to withdraw from modern life, but in so strengthening these forces that its pandemonium can be endured. World-karma demands a courageous attitude to modern life, and that is why genuine Spiritual Science calls at the very outset for effort, really strenuous effort on the part of the human soul.
Moral Technologies is our first point of access to this courageous attitude in which we may strengthen our forces and endure the pandemonium.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the organising weekend that became a group favourite, “There’s no difference between shoes and immortality.” If you would like to explore why this is true, or why this is untrue, I invite you to join our Facebook group – Moral Technologies, and/or to join us in Melbourne on 11-14 April 2016, for the first of three Moral Technologies conferences. More information is available at www.moraltechnologies.com.au
Stefan Nekvapil has lived his whole life immersed in both anthroposophy and technology. He attended Waldorf education for 14 years, participated in conferences at Emerson College in England, Järna in Sweden, the Goetheanum in Switzerland and Harduf Kibutz in Israel, as well as regularly taking part in the Christian Community Camp. Stefan studied a Bachelor of Science majoring in science communication at the Australian National University and currently works in Communications and Aged Care Policy Reform.
He has always felt that his love for technology was not as well supported in his Anthroposophical world as it could have been, and is delighted to now have an opportunity to bring two such important aspects of his life into harmony. Though Stefan insists he is non-spiritual, many who know him disagree.