Over the past several years Dr. Kaku has risen to fame, frequently appearing on the channel “Science” and related networking. He has penned several popular books, the most recent being “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind,” which spent a couple of weeks on the NYT’s bestsellers list in March.
In interviews and presentations Dr. Kaku invariably tends to say something like “Imagine a world where…” and then follows with a banal yet attention-grabbing tidbit about the great strides scientists are making for the sake of our mutual futures. One wonders if the expected reaction is that of the stunned and near-lifeless viewer gazing limply yet fixedly upwards towards the ceiling, weak symbol of the heavens from whence we mere mortals shall receive so many future bounties, like an emoticon received directly into the neural circuitry, or “full immersion entertainment.”
In the future we can expect stored memories available for upload so that, for example, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s will be able to find his way home after an evening stroll. We might even be able to upload confected memories of that dream vacation you never had.
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Working towards the cure for Alzheimer’s is truly noble, all would agree. Altering memories presents more of a challenge to the futurist (“Total Recall,” anyone?), but on the surface seems benign and good-willed enough. However, one need neither be a pessimist, cynic, Amish, nor Luddite to find this presentation of science and technology rather problematic, if not irksome. Concerning the above cited examples, a couple of questions beg themselves: In the future, will we live in sufficiently advanced societies such that Alzheimer’s is the most pressing problem of old-age? Why was it that the person in question never took that dream vacation and had to opt for a virtual substitute?
These questions immediately peel back Dr. Kaku’s techno-centrism and point towards internal contradictions in his futuristic utopia, problems that are better addressed on the social, political, philosophical, and even historical levels.
For example, Dr. Kaku does not address if science and technology will have already eradicated war and disease, factors which inhibit the majority of earth’s population from even contemplating the possibility of Alzheimer’s and dementia. And would it not be more appropriate if science and technology freed us from the monotony of wage-slavery so that there could be few if any possible excuses for not cruising the Caribbean?
Why is it then that Michio Kaku and his kind, Neil deGrasse Tyson the most prominent among them, have such strong appeal to the general public? The answer is that the vision of science and technology which they present interfaces near perfectly with modern western societies’ understanding of themselves through the lens of rationalism and progress generally understood as the product of the ‘Enlightenment.’ This is an historical understanding.
The ‘Enlightenment’ narrative affirms that the history of mankind has been the movement from cave dwelling to the conquest of space; from magic and gods to medicine and the scientific method; from the brutality of slave and feudal systems to the age of economics and rational capitalism. Technology as the physical manifestation of our coming into rationality has led to lives of greater abundance and leisure.
This narrative is in part true. However, taken as an exclusive whole it is false. To demonstrate this we can employ what might be called a ‘dialectical method,’ one which juxtaposes the ‘Enlightenment’ narrative with another partially true yet deficient narrative of history, the ‘Warfare’ narrative. According to this narrative, history has been the movement from simple hand weapons to the atomic bomb; from yearly cycles of relatively small scale engagements to unending precision warfare. Military technology has left us teetering on the brink of ‘mutually assured destruction’ and continues to pose an existential threat.
Juxtaposing this narrative and refocusing the problem as one of historical interpretation has the potential to, in a very clear manner, problematize the triumphalism of Michio Kaku and others. There are several points to be taken from this critique.
First, man controls technology, not the other way around. We alone have the potential and obligation to direct technology in socially and politically responsible directions, ones which not only curb war and prevent disease, but which also open up the possibilities of a technologically advanced world for the entirety of the population, from the Brussels bureaucrat to the southeast-Asian peasant farmer.
Second, the most pressing problems of the future are not technological and scientific, but rather political, social, and organizational. We already possess the technology, that is, the means, to eradicate most disease, hunger, poverty, etc. That we have not done so yet is not because the science ‘isn’t there yet,’ but rather because we live in a plutocratic society which preserves power, privilege, and above all else, profit for remarkably few individuals. This system must be broken for the fruit of technology to be realized and felt.
Finally, the messages and narratives of science and technology which Michio Kaku and others like him present should be resisted. These high priests of ‘scientific progress’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ serve primarily to present a false image of science and its history, an image which ultimately and ironically functions to obscure fact and inhibit a critique of technology on a social level. These people do not ’empower our minds,’ they rather enslave us to a barren desert of thought where only the myth of an oasis of progress exists.