Philosopher confused by longevity, nanotechnology

The May/June Technology Review (free reg. req’d) features an essay by philosopher Roger Scruton attempting to examine the ethical issues of highly advanced technologies. While the focus is on biotech, nanotech is hinted at:

…why cannot machines be produced as humans are now produced, by self-reproduction?

Why not indeed. They could, in principle. Scruton makes some good points, such as:

It is not technology that has caused our environmental problems but incompetent technology—technology that has failed to address the real question, of how to extract energy without damaging the planet.

Quite so. We should refuse the label of “high technology” to those that are not also clean technologies. But the author runs into trouble when he takes on the question of human longevity:

If the planet were to bear the weight of its immortal passengers, their numbers would have to be strictly limited. Reproduction, beyond a certain point, would have to be ruled out. Resources would have to be precisely allocated and scarcities avoided. For these eternal beings would be dangerous—and especially to each other. They would have worked out ways to exert and survive aggression, and these abilities would put them way ahead of any mortal competitors—ahead of everything save themselves. Life among the immortals would be scary beyond belief; its possibility would depend on a rigorous system of totalitarian control, which would forbid the ordinary forms of human happiness, not least the bearing and loving of children. Hardened by centuries of cynical dealings, the joyless predators would prowl around each other, seeking the small, spare advantages that are the only things worth aiming at in a world where everything is allocated by a committee of immortal enforcers.

What a bizarre worldview this person has! One of his confusions shows up in the third word above: “planet.” Somehow, in his vision, humans attain ultimate control over complex biological systems without much simpler space development technology enabling the opening of the space frontier. (In addition, his picture of what would happen if humans were stuck on one planet is appalling—is this his idea of the best we could do? He must know different sorts of people than I do.)

The weirdest thing here is that this is the magazine that MIT sends to its alumni, including me, to get them to write checks to MIT. Most people who go to MIT see technology as, overall, a positive thing, and don’t share this author’s dystopian visions. There are folks who have put more work (and insight) into these issues; let’s get them writing instead. —Christine

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