The Nietzschean Tightrope-Walk
As an admitted reader and writer of horror, I might typically adopt the role of dashing people’s hopes about technology by creating horror fiction scenarios, but in this article I have chosen to adopt the opposing point of view. In the grand scale of history, all the interceding horrors of technological and social change are really quite insignificant in comparison with the vast benefits of modernity.
If I am going to depict the future’s possibilities to a high standard of realism, I must take heed of the way in which past technological advancements have produced a vastly greater number of solutions and beneficial lessons than their avoidable catastrophes. Therefore, if anyone’s arguments are burdened with prejudice, they are the arguments from any ethicists and science-fiction writers (too vast and ingrained is their camp for me to appropriately name any names) who would depict the immediate future as a dark morass to be entered slowly and cautiously. In fact, it might be truer to our nature if we made a leap of faith without care for the risks, on the basis of the long-withheld argument I am willing to produce here. I warn the reader in advance that I am not here addressing human enhancement, medical ethics or any specific area of transhumanist speculation, but rather all possibly alleged risk-intensive technologies, including Craig Venter’s specified practical applications of synthetic biology that deserve tremendous economic interest. The argument works just as well on all other emerging technologies that could also be threatening.
In my previous essay, “A World Waiting On Post-Scarcity”, I concluded with comments on how crisis and fundamental social change related to emerging technologies could carry extreme risk, and chaos is a historical norm during transitional periods. It is this consideration that makes us construct ethics and sound out warnings to prevent the approach of suspected future dangers to life and social stability. Although such rules are aimed at regulating the effects of emerging technologies to avoid their potential harms, a fixation on the avoidance of their harms may itself be the greatest obstacle preventing us from accessing our future. This forces me to sound a key philosophical point that needs great consideration. Change, even when proven to be apparently disastrous in the short-term, can still ultimately produce a beneficial social system in the long-term.
To make the above contention, I must refer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas as I was taught them in my political philosophy studies. In the philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche speaks of the “Superman”. Although the theory itself was meant to encourage the rearing of greater individuals through a renewal of values, the same argument can be relayed to defend social experiments to the negation of all risk. Of these social experiments, some may necessarily threaten us in fundamental ways, and yet remain our only options to stay human. Nietzsche teaches that, as humans, we as a society must necessarily be in transit or we will fall in a regressive way that is contrary to our transitory nature. Even if we stumbled and produced calamity in our efforts to transform ourselves and the world, our nature as a changing society means those of us who are techno-progressives or other transhumanists are still correct in our endorsement of fundamental change.
Let us consider Nietzsche’s arguments concerning progress. Upon seeing the tightrope-walker expected by the crowd, Zarathustra transfixes his audience with the “Superman” resolution they fail to comprehend. “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss”. Therefore, man is a transitional being. No person or society can claim to be perfect or complete in their current state, and at best they can claim to be pioneers towards a better state.
Zarathustra affirms his position, “I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive”. This argument can lead us to adopt a view of all the adversities throughout history as merely part of a pioneering path to a higher state of social and technological civilization. The preaching continues, “I love he who inventeth, that he may build the house for the Superman, and prepare for him earth, animal, and plant; for thus seeketh he his own down-going”. Let us consider this as the root for an argument in favor of radical, risk-intensive technological developments. We are right to anticipate potential harms from emerging technologies, but the greatest error is to flee from the development of those technologies because of our anticipation. All our technological advancements have sprung terrible consequences in the world, but none of us would cite those consequences as reasons to fear and resent the greatest creations we now possess.
Where will the risk-intensive emerging technologies lead us? To a disaster? If so, the fact merely instructs us that it is our destiny to proceed through the impending disaster to unlock the awaited higher states of modern civilization. That is what Nietzsche’s view of our historical transit entails, and that is where the lesson of historical change inexorably leads us. Even if the radical proponents of technological and social transformation are in error or produce disasters, they would still be moving humanity on to a better state. Reflection on errors has often illuminated the future, and so the errors themselves are largely necessary in the long-term of history. This is much the same as Zarathustra’s argument concerning all our hardships as civilization develops. Nevertheless, the crowd is more attracted to the idea of the “last man” who prefers to stay in a moral cradle no better than a poisonous abyss for humanity’s development.
Nietzsche presents the house of the “last man” as a cradle of ethics and restraint, and the same depiction can be extended when it comes to the subjects of social and technological development. The people referred to as the “last man” are criticized by Zarathustra for having “left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth”. Furthermore, the people whose development has stopped will “walk warily”, ultimately because they fear the costs of our transition to the next stage required in history. Of them, Zarathustra notes, “One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one”, and that attitude is the same as we find in the reactionary view of radical social and technological change.
What is the right path, according to Zarathustra’s own doctrine? When the tightrope-walker has fallen, and lies mortally wounded, Zarathustra acclaims his however failed performance, claiming “Thou hast made danger thy calling; therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perishest by thy calling: therefore will I bury thee with mine own hands.” With this statement, Zarathustra would affirm for us that those who are willing to be pioneers and take the risk-intensive paths are really the leaders in our social and technological progress. They hold the key to the future, as grisly as the costs of their acts might potentially be. This would be the most beneficial view of the kind of transition made possible through the incumbent changes in society and technology that I discussed in my previous article. We should not profess to hold the complete recipe as to where humans should be going with emerging technologies and other vehicles of the transition, but from the dictates of history we must recognize the inevitability of the tremendous costs of progress.
My interpretation of Nietzsche’s tightrope-walk continues to hold that this story can be applied to teach us a radical ethical lesson on how the risks of invention and social experiment can pioneer nobility and progress in future history. Because this is so, the risks of social and technological innovation and experiment are not deplorable but glorious, and should be loved rather than feared. Despite the horrors of history, all that is valuable to us has emerged at tremendous risk to us, and the same principle applies to future generations. As perverse as the message of this article would seem without its philosophical foundation, it is quite likely that we will never reach the stars if we do not first permit and finally conquer the remaining horrors on our planet, because it is only by reflecting on a whole and complete track of change that we can know the reality of progress anyway. The message does not mean we should recklessly embrace obviously dangerous technologies or extend our tolerance of them, but it does mean an immaculate ex post facto apology for all their horrors would surely present itself after we have reached the stars. Even the Black Death, seen as the worst plague in history, produced more progress than backwardness in the long term, being acknowledged by some historians to have “caused” the advances of the Renaissance. We are surely not yet at the pinnacle of science, or any other domain of development. Others may someday consider us as medieval, and on that day our repetitious ethical concerns about all things new will be regarded as ignorant and backward.
For me, the transition period of chaos and blindness addressed in my previous essay may well be filled with the horrors of misused or environmentally harmful forays into science and technology, but those horrors are tolerable in the long-term, because misuse in the present is the guarantor of correct use in the future. The ultimate sin when it comes to civilization’s advancement is not recklessness, but the paranoia that attempts to rein in the emerging technologies and thus curtails their possibilities for us all. As Zarathustra argues, “it is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the germ of his highest hope.” Our dedication to progress should still override any compulsion of ours to preemptively bar the anticipated costs of that progress.