Biotechnology, Access and Choice

Salon had a number of interesting articles from recent weeks on the intersections between technology, biology, and education.

  • Alan H. Goldstein starts with Invasion of the high-tech body snatchers. A description of the coming changes in bioengineering. If we can soon replace much of the human body with artificial parts, we will, and then who knows what we will become. He says that bioethics has been too focused on cloning and ignoring the potential threat and promise of what he calls bioengineering.

  • Andrew Leonard then reviews a new book, Never Mind the Laptops, by Bob Johnstone. A laptop in every knapsack acknowledges that computers can probably improve education but what impact will they have on the digital divide. Will poorer children be left behind because their school districts cannot afford laptops for every student?

In addition to these items I’ve been reading Enough, by Bill McKibben, and Our Posthuman Future, by Francis Fukuyama. Both of them are arguing in favor of a basic human nature that could be endangered by the technology that Goldstein describes.

To me the biggest fear is who will control the technology. If the rich are able to design perfect children then the nightmare social stratification feared by McKibben and others probably will come true. Given the disparities in wealth in America today, and between America and the rest of the world, one could argue that the stratification has already occurred. But if the fear is not assuaged by saying that the effects have already happened then another response should be to question the intellectual property system that makes it possible for the rich to entrench their access. Even if the patents expire after 20 years the timeline is long enough for significant changes to take place. So the choice should be between openness and monopolies, not whether to pursue or ignore the technology.

A similar case for openness was made by Robert Carlson in The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies. Carlson talks about access to biotechnology machines and products on the internet and the fact that these machines are becoming more capable every year. He, too, thinks there is a choice to be made between open and closed access.