Technology and Mankind’s Shrinking Dominion

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, July 20, 1969, photographed by Neil Armstrong. (NASA)
We used to dream of mastering the physical problems of the universe and spreading the rule and dominion of mankind.

Fifty years ago Buzz Aldrin took the giant leap onto the lunar surface. While making that ginger hop, he wore an Omega Speedmaster, a wristwatch with a chronograph. The Swiss luxury watchmaker Omega continues to reap the profits today. Judged by all the promotional gear at watch shops celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing, it seems the romance of wearing a NASA-approved piece of gear on the wrist still has great appeal to men with a few thousand dollars to spare. The romance comes from the combination of 19th-century timekeeping technology, 20th-century industrial design, and a futuristic dream of technical wonders to come.

But in a way, there’s something almost melancholy about a 50-year-old wristwatch design still commanding so much attention. My childhood was filled with television reruns of space-age dreaming about the future. The Jetsons had flying cars. They had a robot maid, Rosie, who was a sign that menial jobs would disappear in the future. Everyone could live like an aristocrat, without anyone having to live like a servant. On Star Trek, the problem of scarcity had been solved by “replicators” that made food for you instantly. And the power of imagination had been put into rooms that could generate holograms of any environment. Occasionally these were used for entertainment and escapism, but mostly they were handy for training the daring crew for their intergalactic and civilizing missions.

In these visions, technology had been mastered by humans as part of our God-given dominion over Earth and the creation connected to it. We solved Newtonian and Malthusian problems through its use, generating superhuman forces of speed and power in one hand, and super-abundant resources for human flourishing on a galactic scale.

There is always a slightly dark side to futurism, and our space-age dreams had them. The loneliness of space, our disconnection from home, or the unknown and greater dangers of the final frontier loomed somewhere in that vision. But the fundamental direction was toward progress, and greater vistas on which humanity could do good.

Anyone raised with these visions and dreams now wakes up every morning in 2019 and sees that the most powerful technology company, Google, is basically a combination spy agency and ad agency. Sure, in its spare time, it tries to build a self-driving car and works out how to program it to crash into the correct bystander in a pinch. But mostly, its selling you workout programs, diet supplements, and amateur-made guides to your existing hobbies.

Previously we dreamed of mastering the physical problems of the universe and spreading the rule and dominion of mankind. Now technology has taken a Freudian turn. It is used by corporations to master us. We’ve gone from Rosie the maid to Samantha, the operating system in the 2013 movie Her. Instead of being the servant, our tech is used as a distraction and illusion of connection with other humans. We think we are getting into bed with a glowing, sexy-voiced mate. But it’s just a mask for Big Brother, and we worry that his presence on our nightstands might be giving us brain cancer.

VIEW GALLERY: Apollo 11

Peter Thiel, the investor in Facebook and other tech companies, has made this same complaint. Instead of flying cars, we got 140 characters. He wants to make more progress in atoms, rather than in bits. But I think the tragedy is almost worse than he describes. Instead of expanding the rule of mankind, and our dreams across the final frontier, we have turned technology against ourselves, making Google and Facebook deeper and more knowledgeable intimates than our own spouses, parents, and children. We’ve expanded the invasiveness of 20th-century advertising and brought the crass, ugly glowing billboard into our own hands.

It’s time to turn back, and find where we abandoned Rosie and our replicators.

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