The Descent of Man
the absolute itch for knowledge and power...
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For those of you old enough to remember Jacob Bronowski’s wonderfully eloquent and compassionate series, The Ascent of Man: congratulations! Those of you who aren’t old enough to remember it are better advised to hunt it down and watch it.
The final episode of The Ascent of Man opens with a photo m ontage of Auschwitz, before resolving back to Mr. Bronowski. “It’s said,” he begins, “that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false. Tragically false. Look for yourself,” he continues. “This is the crematorium and concentration camp of Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. That,” he says, “was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
Later, standing on the edge of the ash pond, he implores us to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. “We have to close the distance,” he says, “between the push button order and the act.”
Then he squats, ankle deep in the blackened water. “We have to touch people. [CUT to image of laser-guided missile explosion] We have to touch people.”
The distance between the push button order and the act in the Brave New Digital World may already be too great to reconcile. This [photo of a smartphone] is how people are turned into numbers today. This [photo of a server farm], and tens of thousands of server farms like it, are where those numbers are turned against us.
The wonders and miracles of our technology not withstanding, it’s still done by arrogance. It’s still done by dogma. It’s still done by ignorance.
About knowledge and wisdom, Solomon, the wisest of kings, wrote…
Look. I have increased myself in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled Jerusalem before me. I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.
Then I applied myself to the knowledge of wisdom, and also of madness and folly. But I learned that this too is a chasing after the wind.
The wise king concludes…
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
We have to cure ourselves of the absolute itch for more knowledge and power, especially at a time when our technologies are already ubiquitous and intelligent enough to enslave and destroy us. We can no longer afford to ignore the one lesson history teaches us over and over and over again…
that today’s utopian plan is tomorrow’s dystopia.
In the end, as always, we make plans…and God laughs.