Competence leads on to the story of technology. It is technology, above all, that has become the defining force of our world. It is the one thing bigger than ourselves to which we all pay homage. It is seen as beyond any one person's control, a force that will make our futures. So Bill Gates entitled his book on the future of computing The Road Ahead, and even the British Medical Association's guide to genetics is called Our Genetic Future. In both cases the assumption is that there is only one road, only one future to be determined by electronic and biological technology.
Yet the strange thing about technology is that it so often disappoints. In the early 1970s, for example, two books gleefully mapped out the technological future. Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener's The Year 2000 and Alvin Toffler's Future Shock both forecast a "roaring current of change" over the next 30 years that would include nuclear explosives for mining, mining on the moon, artificial moons to light large areas at night, human hibernation, and life expectancy extended to 150 years. None of this happened, and both books now look as quaint as the futuristic visions of Jules Verne or HG Wells.
Such disappointments hardly seem to register. Technology and its equally abstract and inhuman companion, the free market, is all we seem to have. We are all technological determinists now, fatalists before the radical transformations offered by information technology and genetics. For optimists, this is good. Technology reinforces and empowers the authentic self. Biology promises freedom from the destructive shortcomings of nature. The Internet gives us personal global power beyond that of governments or companies. Technology is the one sure salvation of the atomised self.
But pessimists ask, what kind of selves are these that seem to be fleeing from the past into the arms of a future determined solely by our material competence and the logic of the marketplace? Are they human selves at all? Are they not rather illiterate, ahistorical creations of technology? Without a past and with a future defined by forces beyond the competence or wisdom of individuals, how can we be sure that the people of the new age are human beings at all?
Take your pick. In the Americanised jargon of advertising, it's your call. We have embarked on the last year of the second millennium of the Christian era in a condition of doubt more radical than we have ever known. The century that is ending has been the bloodiest in human history and, through that violence, we have learnt to mistrust human projects. We have embraced, instead, in- or supra-human ones of technology and the globalised market. It might work. But the stakes are high. Are you ready to bet? Or, in the words of Dirty Harry, do you feel lucky, punk?
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