Analog man in a digital age

Address delivered by Yossi Vardi at the degree-awarding ceremony of the Feinberg Graduate School, Weizmann Institute of Science, June 5, 2002
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – with these words Charles Dickens opened his book A Tale of Two Cities. Graduates of higher education institutions, young scientists of the early 21st century, embark upon a wonderful journey armed with an excellent travel ticket, one of the best in the world. Scientists today are the harbingers of progress. They have taken the place of the traditional, closed elite. A scientist’s entry ticket makes it possible to move between countries and between social spheres. They are the ones who will shape the face of the next century. According to current life expectancy statistics, most graduates who are about to begin that journeys today will live to see much of the next century.
What will that journey be like? To paraphrase Dickens, one could say that this will be the best of centuries and the worst of centuries. I will try to examine what can make the difference between these two possibilities.
In 1794 the greatest scientist of his time since Newton, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, was put on trial. Judges of the young French Republic created after the revolution ruled that he should be executed. Lavoisier’s crime was connected not with his scientific research but with his work as a tax collector. When the sentence was announced, he was given the right to request one wish. And here is what Lavoisier requested: “I am engaged in a series of scientific experiments. Please postpone the execution by two weeks so that I can complete my research before I die.” The judges’ response was: “The republic has no need for scientists.” After Lavoisier was guillotined, the great mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange remarked: "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."
The Canadian philosopher and media researcher Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” in the early 1970s. When he examined the future impact of the new electronic media, he predicted that the border-transgressing transparency created by the media would turn the world into a single village in which everyone would know everything about everyone else. Less than 20 years after that prediction, we witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dismantlement of the Soviet bloc. There is no doubt that modern technology, which rendered the West transparent to the eyes of Eastern Europe, played a key role in those events. The East went through a rapid democratization process, in the wake of which Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. He claimed that civilization, which from its inception had sought better ways to organize and manage an ideal human society, had reached the prized goal – the model of a liberal democratic state. This successful model, he declared, is civilization’s final milestone in the quest that had characterized it until then. His conclusion: This will be the regime of choice. In other words, history – the story of civilization’s lengthy quest – had come to an end. And indeed, for a while it seemed that the global village had been created and history had truly come to an end. But has it?
Let’s try to conjure up a positive scenario of the next century. What works in our favor? Accelerated technological development and scientific innovation. One need only look at the pace of change in the past 50 years to envision the pace of change that lies ahead. Fifty years ago, man had not yet stepped on the moon. Plastic materials, television and transistors were in their infancy. Jet airplanes, genetic engineering, the personal computer and the Internet did not exist. In other words, we have made a tremendous leap in a relatively short time.
World population in the coming century will account for 70 percent of the people who ever lived on our planet. In the past, only a fraction of the population had the privilege of receiving education. Today, the circle of people with access to education is expanding rapidly. Education is reaching huge populations in eastern Asia. Women, who, with the exception of a few individual cases, were barred from everything to do with education in the course of history, are now also joining the circle. All this points to the enormous potential of this century’s population. Calculate how many new Einsteins and Mozarts can be expected to appear in this vast population reservoir.
The world is improving in many spheres. Such topics as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, computerization and artificial intelligence will propel humanity forward. Pollution in cities, despite claims to the contrary, is becoming a less severe problem – not only in Los Angeles but even in Haifa. We witness more and more cases in which international responsibility is being assumed for problems that cross borders. The hole in the ozone layer is beginning to shrink as a result of effective responsibility of this sort followed by vigorous action. Through effective use of the Internet the world has finally begun to deal with the lethal problem of millions of abandoned land mines. The world’s standard of living is rising. The forecast is that by the end of the century, the poor countries will reach the level of today’s rich countries, while the rich countries will be even richer. Life expectancy is increasing all the time. Entire nations will have access to the best Western technology. Globalization is developing, helping to move goods and knowledge and creating jobs. Countless volunteer endeavors launched by “people who care” about all kinds of issues are operating on an unprecedented scale.
However, just as in the Eastern model of yin-yang, every positive trait has a negative side, one that we’ll have to face up to. At any given moment there are dozens of international conflicts in the world, some of them violent. The world is plagued by hunger and a shortage of water. One and a half billion people earn no more than a dollar a day. Every four seconds a person dies of malnutrition. Africa is ravaged by AIDS and tuberculosis. Why is this relevant to us? The very question is problematic, but the practical answer is that we’ve already seen that what people or countries don’t receive in an orderly manner, they tend to take by force. Urbanization creates new environmental problems. The family, which throughout civilization was considered the pillar of society, has broken down. The greatest achievements of science and technology in the area of electronics, biology, security and communications are within the reach of terrorists. As part of globalization, the rich countries transfer less desirable jobs to the poor ones, and since some of these jobs can be performed only within the borders of the rich countries, this creates entire worlds of legal and illegal migration. Illegal immigration has turned into an industry the size of the drug industry, and in many cases it takes the shape of modern slavery. Extension of life expectancy, which is of course a good thing in itself, creates a tremendous burden on society and on unprepared pension funds. Computer systems are vulnerable to hacking and prone to invasion of privacy. Genetic research raises difficult moral questions, some of them connected to human cloning. And looming above all this is of course the nuclear threat.
The greater the power of science and technology, the greater the tension between the positive and negative trends. One thing is clear: progress is not necessarily synonymous with happiness or with choosing to do the right and good thing.
Was McLuhan right, and are the problems we face today only insignificant hurdles on the way to the consolidation of the global village? Or is it a global “boat” in which we all sit, and should one person drill a hole in that boat, or press a button, or hit “ENTER” – and we’ll all drown? A boat in which the wonders of modern technology allow each of the “passengers” to clearly see what the neighbor is doing – but this ability only creates and exacerbates tension and hostility? Perhaps it’s a village in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and science creates wonderful things but distributes them in a way that creates discord and often puts them in the hands of the wrong people, who cause damage and can endanger the very existence of civilization.
Was Fukuyama right? Or are we still participating in the long quest of a civilization seeking its direction? With the powerful help of the new communications technology, we are witnessing today a consolidation of different groups, inside countries and among countries, trying to change or break the framework of the classic liberal democratic state and obtain influence that transgresses borders, some by persuasion and others by force. Minorities – ethnic, religious, national and others – are claiming more influence and representation and are no longer prepared to accept the norms determined and imposed by the majority. Other groups are trying to exert an influence, for better or for worse, some by persuasion, others by force, to represent interests that go beyond those of the state. In this second category we find an uncompromising mix of bodies as different form one another as East is different from West. Ranging from multinational companies to international voluntary relief organizations to anti-globalization movements and terrorist groups. Such struggles and tensions will continue deep into the current century. All these groups have their hands in the stew, and all will try, in one way or another, to affect the civilization of the 21st century, whose shape and image are as yet unclear.
Similar dilemmas have ever preoccupied scientists, politicians and all of humanity, but they will become increasingly relevant in the coming 50 years. Science is but a tool – a wonderful tool, but everything depends on the person using the tool. The deal between the elite and the rest of the population has always been that the elite was granted its standing and power in exchange for its willingness to assume responsibility and take care of the entire society. Scientists, as members of the new elite, can no longer see themselves as people who deal only with science; they share responsibility for the consequences. Science and scientists must be relevant and act responsibly.
The republic – in contrast to what Lavoisier’s judges had to say – does need scientists; on the other hand, scientists also need the republic. First and foremost, however, both primarily need humanness, the basic essence of being human – “human” in the full sense of this obligating cultural and social term.