dan_sperber's picture
Social and Cognitive Scientist; CEU Budapest and CNRS Paris; Co-author (with Deirdre Wilson), Meaning and Relevance; and (with Hugo Mercier), The Enigma of Reason

From the Neolithic revolution to the information age, the major changes in the human condition—none of them changing everything, needless to say—have been consequences of new technologies. There is now a glut of new technologies in the offing that will alter the way we live more rapidly and radically than anything before in ways we cannot properly foresee. I wish I could just wax lyrical about some of the developments we can at least sensibly speculate about, but others will do so more competently. So, let me focus on the painfully obvious that we would rather not think about.

Many new technologies can provide new weapons or new ways to use old ones. Access to these technologies is every day easier. In the near future we should expect, with near certainty, that atomic, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction will be used in a variety of conflicts. The most important change this will bring about is not that so many will die. Hundreds of thousands have died all these years in wars and natural catastrophes, with an unspeakable impact on the population affected, but, alas, massacres and other forms of collective death have been part and parcel of the human condition. This time, however, many of the victims will belong to powerful modern societies that, since the Second World War, have on the whole been spared. People in these societies are, neither less nor more than the usual poorer and powerless victims of massive violence, entitled to live full decent lives, and have a right to fight for this. What may bring about radical changes is that they will be in a much stronger position to exert and possibly abuse this right. Recent large-scale murderous attacks resulted in the acceptance of fewer checks on executive power, limitation of civil rights, preventive warfare, ethnically targeted public suspicion. In the future, people who will have witnessed even direr events at close quarters may well support even more drastic measures. I am not discussing here the rationality of fears to come, or the extent to which they are likely to be biased and manipulated. I just assume that, for good or bad reasons, they will weigh in favor of limitations to the liberties of individuals and to the independence of countries.

One must hope that, in part thanks to the changes brought about by novel technologies, new forms of social and political understanding and action will develop to help address at the root issues that otherwise might give rise to ever more lethal conflicts. Still, while more and more powerful technologies are becoming more and more accessible, there is no reason to believe that humans are becoming commensurately wiser and more respectful of one another's rights. There will be, then, at least in most people's perception, a direct clash between their safety and their liberty and even more between their safety and the liberty of others. The history of this century—our history, that of our children and grandchildren—will in good part be that of the ways in which this clash is played out, or overcome.