This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Nicholas Agar, a professor of ethics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
Project Syndicate: If, as you recently noted, human ingenuity is tied to our desire to understand and control nature, has hubris contributed to the current pandemic? How might this reminder of humanity’s enduring vulnerability affect the path of innovation?
Nicholas Agar: Wouldn’t it be great if we viewed our vulnerability not as a problem in need of a technological solution, but as an opportunity to see past our differences and make the most of our evolved sociality? It’s clear that some suffer more than others from COVID-19. But I hope we can still view it mainly as a shared challenge for our species. If we come through this together, we’ll be better prepared for the next shock, which may well have nothing to do with infectious disease.
Technological solutions can be excellent when they arise. (Thanks, penicillin!) But when we imagine future fixes, we often omit the messy human element. It’s jarring to read now about how the digital gig economy was initially marketed: as an innovation that would turn disempowered employees into flourishing micro-entrepreneurs. Attempting to refocus innovation, in order to control for some specific future scenario, is a recipe for disappointment.
Of course, I hope that we will get a cheap and effective COVID-19 vaccine soon. But while we wait, let’s celebrate working together to protect the lives of others. This would beat the type of cooperation and sacrifice we traditionally celebrate: teaming up in war to kill a designated set of foreigners.
We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Agar's picks:
by John T. Cacciopo and William Patrick
This book describes social neuroscientist Cacciopo’s pioneering research on the deleterious effects of social isolation on an obligatorily gregarious animal, memorably comparing the health effects of loneliness with those of smoking. Cacciopo’s ideas had such a big impact on my thinking as I was writing my own book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, that I formulated an appreciative email to send him, only to discover that he had just died.
by Cathy N. Davidson
This call for radical changes in the way universities teach was real eye-opener for me. The students filling our lecture halls today may look similar to their 1990s predecessors, but they think differently. My courses seek to implement some of Davidson’s teachings.
by Walter Scheidel
This book adduces impressive data charting rises in inequality that seem to abate only with tragedies like pandemics and mass warfare. The bubonic plague was a big enough shock, over successive generations, to make things better for working people. It seems sociopathic to lament that COVID-19 may make things worse for poor people by not being enough of a shock.
From the PS Archive
Agar shows why toxic ideals are often more effective in galvanizing humans than “utopian” ideals that could improve the world. Read more.
Agar warns against allowing technological advances to inflate our expectations of forthcoming breakthroughs. Read more.
Around the web
In his latest book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, Agar explores how to make a place for humans (and humanness) in the future digital economy. Find it here.
Agar argues that, instead of meekly surrendering the right to work to machines, we could aim for a social digital economy. Read the article.