The danger of scientific development, especially pertaining to those in power, is that it threatens the traditional school of thought. In the words of Joseph Priestley, “We (dissenters) are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition…in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually that the same foundation can never be built upon again.” (Johnson, 2009, pg. 178) Science may be inherently amoral, but it has a knack for finding the imperfections in religious and political infrastructures. To think that a new ideology can come along and overthrow the old is a terrifying proposition for a leader, be they pastor, politician, or both. How is one supposed to hold any power over their subjects if said subjects defy them? It would seem that in order to avoid the destruction of a previously established organization, any criticism should be either ignored or readily silenced. This was certainly the case with Priestley, whose opinions of the Christian faith—a religion closely intertwined with the government at the time—were less-than-savory (pg. 170-171). Little did he know that the gunpowder he’d laid under the building of superstition had left a trail back to his home in Fair Hill. Scores of rioters laid waste to Priestley’s house, burning it—along with his laboratory equipment—to the ground (pg. 184-188). While it’s unclear whether the government had played any role in instigating the mob, Parliament took no initiative after the fact to protect Priestley. This apathetic response forced both him and his family to flee to America, much to the pleasure of Parliament (pg. 191). The threat to tradition had been eliminated, if only for a moment.
I think “The Invention of Air” gives some helpful insight into society’s concerns over automation. As many of you probably know, machines are expected to replace about 40% of all jobs by the year 2050 (Seager, 2016). Much like how Priestley’s ideas were alarming to the people of his time, roboticists have presented human society with something unfamiliar, dare I say threatening to our current way of life. So much of modern culture revolves around working and having a job, that the idea that most of us won’t have one anymore is almost unthinkable. An optimist might look at this as a good thing as plenty of people are overworked. The situation is so bad in Japan, that the Japanese have a word which roughly translates to “death by overwork”: karoshi (Weller, 2017). Free from a job, a person would have plenty of time to work on their hobbies, travel, and spend time with family. On the other hand, a pessimist might suggest that infinite free time may worsen depressive thoughts (it’s easier to reflect on the negative if there’s nothing to distract you), and that the need to fill a massive void of time may in fact be anxiety-inducing rather than enjoyable. Whatever camp you side with, the point stands that the human race is rapidly approaching a major shift in our culture, and a great deal of uncertainty is hitching a ride with it.
Johnson, S. (2009). The invention of air: A story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Seager, C. (2016, October 13). Will jobs exist in 2050? Retrieved September 30, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2016/oct/13/will-jobs-exist-in-2050
Weller, C. (2017, October 18). Japan is facing a ‘death by overwork’ problem – here’s what it’s all about. Retrieved September 30, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-karoshi-japanese-word-for-death-by-overwork-2017-10