In Radical Evolution Joel Garreau's Hell scenario is centred on the Luddite apocalypticism of the techno-millennial apostate, Bill Joy, former chief scientist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems. In the late 1990s Joy began to believe that genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology posed novel apocalyptic risks to human life. These technologies, he argued, posed a different kind of threat because they could self-replicate; guns do not breed and shoot people on their own, but a rogue bioweapon could. His essay 'Why the Future Doesn't Need Us,' published in April 2000 in Wired magazine, called for a global, voluntary 'relinquishmenf of these technologies.
Greens and others of an apocalyptic frame of mind were quick to seize on Joy's essay as an argument for the enacting of bans on technological innovation, invoking the 'precautionary principle', the idea that a potentially dangerous technology should be fully studied for its potential impacts before being deployed. The lobby group ETC argued in its 2003 report 'The Big Down' that nanotechnology could lead to a global environmental and social catastrophe, and should be placed under government moratorium. Anxieties about the apocalyptic risks of converging bio-, nano- and information technologies have fed a growing Luddite strain in Western culture (Bailey 2001a, 2001b), linking Green and anarchist advocates for neo-pastoralism (Jones, 2006; Mander, 1992; Sale, 2001; Zerzan, 2002) to humanist critics of technoculture (Ellul, 1967; Postman, 1993; Roszak, 1986) and apocalyptic survivalists to Christian millennialists. The neo-Luddite activist Jeremy Rifkin has, for instance, built coalitions between secular and religious opponents of reproductive and agricultural biotechnologies, arguing that the encroachment into the natural order will have apocalyptic consequences. Organizations such as the Chicago-based Institute on Biotechnology & The Human Future, which brings together bio-and nano-critics from the Christian Right and the secular Left, represent the institutionalization of this new Luddite apocalypticismadvocating global bans on 'genocidal' lines of research (Annas, Andrews, and Isasi, 2002).
Joy has, however, been reluctant to endorse Luddite technology bans. Joy and Kurzweil are entrepreneurs and distrust regulatory solutions. Joy and Kurzweil also share assumptions about the likelihood and timing of emerging technologies, differing only in their views on the likelihood of millennial or apocalyptic outcomes. But they underlined their similarity of worldview by issuing a startling joint statement in 2005 condemning the publication of the genome of the 1918 influenza virus, which they viewed as a cookbook for a potential bioterror weapon (Kurzweil and Joy, 2005). Disturbing their friends in science and biotech, leery of government mandates for secrecy, they called for 'international agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications' and 'a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defences against new biological viral threats'.
In the 1990s anxieties grew about the potential for terrorists to use recombinant bioengineering to create new bioweapons, especially as bioweapon research in the former Soviet Union came to light. In response to these threats the Clinton administration and US Congress started major bioterrorism preparedness initiatives in the 1990s, despite warnings from public health advocates such as Laurie Garrett (1994, 2000) that monies would be far better spent on global public health initiatives to prevent, detect, and combat emerging infectious diseases. After 9/11 the Bush administration, motivated in part by the millennial expectations of both the religious Right and secular neo-conservatives, focused even more attention on the prevention of relatively low probability/low lethality bioterrorism than on the higher probability/lethality prospects of emerging infectious diseases such pandemic flu. Arguably apocalyptic fears around bioterrorism, combined with the influence of the neo-conservatives and biotech lobbies, distorted public health priorities. Perhaps conversely we have not yet had sufficient apocalyptic anxiety about emerging plagues to force governments to take a comprehensive, proactive approach to public health. (Fortunately efforts at infectious disease monitoring, gene sequencing and vaccine production are advancing nonetheless; a year after Kurzweil and Joy's letter a team at the US National Institutes of Health had used the flu genome to develop a vaccine for the strain [NIH, 2006].)
An example of a more successful channelling of techno-apocalyptic energies into effective prophylaxis was the Millennium Bug or Y2K phenomenon. In the late 1990s a number of writers began to warn that a feature of legacy software systems from the 1960s and 1970s, which coded years with two digits instead of four, would lead to widespread technology failure in the first seconds of 2000. The chips controlling power plants, air traffic, and the sluice gates in sewer systems would suddenly think the year was 1900 and freeze. Hundreds of thousands of software engineers around the world were trained to analyse 40-year-old software languages and rewrite them. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent worldwide on improving information systems, disaster preparedness, and on global investment in new hardware and software, since it was often cheaper simply to replace than to repair legacy systems (Feder, 1999; Mussington, 2002). Combined with the imagined significance of the turn of the Millennium, Christian millennialists saw the crisis as a portent of the EndTimes (Schaefer, 2004), and secular apocalyprics bought emergency generators, guns and food in anticipation of a prolonged social collapse (CNN, 1998; Kellner, 1999; Tapia, 2003). Some anti-technology Y2K apocalyptics argued for widespread technological relinquishment - getting off the grid and returning to a nineteenth century lifestyle.
The date 1 January 2000 was as unremarkable as all predicted millennial dates have been, but in this case, many analysts believe potential catastrophes were averted due to the proactive action from governments, corporations, and individual consumers (U.S. Senate, 2000), motivated in part by millennial anxieties. Although the necessity and economic effects of pre-Y2K investments in information technology modernization remain controversial, some subsequent economic and productivity gains were probably accrued (Kliesen, 2003). Althoughthe size and cost of the Y2K preparations may not have been optimal, the case is still one of proactive policy and technological innovation driven in part by millennial/apocalyptic anxiety. Similar dynamics can be observed around the apocalyptic concerns over 'peak oil', 'climate change', and the effects of environmental toxins, which have helped spur action on conservation, alternative energy sources, and the testing and regulation of novel industrial chemicals (Kunstler, 2006).
Continue reading here: Symptoms of dysfunctional millennialism in assessing future scenarios
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