Wade Rowland — prolific commentator, educator, congenital worrier — has a lot of questions for us. They are about technology, society, and the way we live today. But many of them come down to one big question: Can the innovators, experimenters, and purveyors of science and technology proceed responsibly without considering the moral elements of their work?
The implications of this question and of the ones that follow from it are vast. They intrude on almost every aspect of our daily lives. They lead us — or should lead us — to ask whether genetic manipulation is a good thing and whether civilization really needs artificial intelligence. They prompt us to consider whether humankind is now in the thrall of a bunch of Frankensteins: promoters of a science run horribly amok. Rowland asks questions in The Storm of Progress that cause us to contemplate whether science and morality can converge — or whether they are careening off in different directions, never to intersect for the redemption of the broader society.
Rowland has several principal worries. He’s concerned about a future in which computers design other computers that are ever more complex and ever more capable: machines spiralling out of control. He wonders “if the unintended consequences of technical progress — which is supposed to provide our salvation — will destroy us long before any sustainable stasis is reached.” He’s troubled that our political systems have not accommodated themselves to the new technology and the fading of the Enlightenment consensus. These systems, he explains, “fail to deliver on the promise of a morally justifiable level of comfort and happiness for all.” And he believes that we have lost the ability to communicate with one another and to examine life’s big problems. In order to recover it, he writes, “we will need to be fluent in the half-forgotten vocabulary of ethics and pay attention to the neglected processes of making moral judgements that will stand the test of time. We will need to understand the interconnectedness between science, the technology it produces, and the human values that we all agree are worth pursuing.”
Hold on to your seats. What follows in these pages is a crash course in, among others, Hobbes, Bacon, Kant, Aristotle, Spinoza, Swift, Darwin, Voltaire, and, especially, Adam Smith, who Rowland argues “played an outsized role in setting the stage for the eventual marginalizing of authentic moral discourse.”
Rowland puts into words what is clear to the naked eye: science and technology rule the world, with the previous rulers — religion and morality — having faded in significance and impact. That’s the problem with modernity; it’s unrooted, and our values have been uprooted. And this loss helps to explain an enormous amount: “No fact in the modern scientific consensus on the nature of physical reality is more than about 450 years old, while consensus on moral issues such as truth, justice, equity, and human dignity often stretches back to the beginnings of recorded history.” In short, the worship of the (relatively) new has replaced the reverence of the (much derided and oft-discarded) old. We might reread that passage and wonder whether the old —“truth, justice, equity, and human dignity”— might ever make a roaring comeback, on campuses and in the national conversation, in part as a reaction to what Rowland observes.
Indeed, The Storm of Progress is a compilation of provocative notions that will remain with readers and shape their passage through a swiftly changing and often perplexing reality. Rowland asks whether moral questions are even relevant in our everyday choices or whether, for example, we have even a morsel of “moral reflection, or even curiosity, when we buy a pair of shoes made in some South Asian sweatshop, or a gallon of gasoline produced from Alberta tar sands or Niger delta offshore crude, or, for that matter, a chicken breast or pork chop carved from an animal grown in inhumane industrial conditions.” He adds, mordantly, “If it satisfies desires, it’s all good.”
Good — but hardly a social good. Rowland takes aim at the satisfaction of financial and personal desires, the driving elements of our consumption society, but not without providing guidance to the perplexed: “Good fortune, or happiness, is dependent not just on getting what you want. It depends on both getting what you want and wanting the right things. Wanting the wrong things and getting them is not a recipe for happiness.” Whole books have been written on this subject, with similar admonitions but without the succinctness or power. In fact, The Storm of Progress can be understood with serious contemplation on those thirty-nine words.
Rowland also critiques the cult of “merit,” already under scrutiny and attack in public commentary. The contours of the debate are well known and well articulated: the place of public schools and Oxbridge colleges in British civic life, for instance, and the role of legacy admissions to selective American universities. We might distill such discussions down to the question of whether merit — like admission to the eight Ivy League institutions in the United States — can in fact be inherited, an intriguing internal contradiction. Then, to add to the chaos, mix in this phenomenon: the “meritorious” often look with wonder and, it must be said, disdain at the “meritless.” If you need an example, simply recall Hillary Rodham Clinton’s infamous remark in September 2016, when she dismissed half of Donald Trump’s adherents as a “basket of deplorables.”
All this brings us to the apparent mystery, as the meritorious see it, of the larger Trump phenomenon. Here Rowland sets the table: “Spurning the best advice of experts and technocrats, the ‘meritless’ and disaffected often vote against their own best interests, swayed by resentment, and bombarded with targeted, manipulative media messages, electing candidates of dubious qualifications.” In a way, there is little mystery at all. The power of Trump, who arguably has dubious qualifications for the White House, derives directly from his intuitive identification with the meritless — despite the apparent truth that he has little in common with his followers and that many of his supporters have suffered under his policies. (Trump’s support of the coal industry, to cite one example among many, has not helped coal miners: though the United States added 6.4 million jobs in the three years after his inauguration in 2017, coal jobs dropped by about 1,000.)
Speaking seven months before Clinton’s regrettable (and deeply injurious) comment, Trump bellowed, “I love the poorly educated.” This from a multimillionaire (if not exactly a billionaire) tycoon with an Ivy League degree himself. How to explain the disconnect? Not so hard, really: Members of the Manhattan meritocracy overlooked the surface qualities in Trump that ordinarily would prompt them to celebrate (and invite to Upper West Side soirées) a wealthy businessman with an Ivy League pedigree. Instead, they spurned Trump as an arriviste and a vulgarian without refinement but with poor taste in bathroom fixtures, garish neckties, bad manners, too many wives, and too many over-privileged and underachieving progeny. Thus, the forty-fifth president may have more in common with the so called meritless than with the meritorious. There! Contemporary American politics explained in three sentences.
Songwriters have long taught us that money can’t buy you love. (As John Lennon and Paul McCartney pleaded, “Tell me that you want the kind of things / That money just can’t buy.”) Money also can’t buy you happiness, as the many busy psychologists of Palm Beach might attest. Or as Rowland puts it, “Beyond the level at which basic needs are met, rising incomes and the things they allow people to buy have little or no statistical correlation with subjective feelings of well-being, or happiness.”
You may be wondering when social media would come under scrutiny. Not to disappoint — just wait two pages. And the evils of big tech? Coming up fast. Rowland portrays them as the functional equivalents of nineteenth-century railroads and telegraph lines, though with a difference, for they “embody unprecedented potential for economic and political influence, given their vast reach and ability to harvest and employ user data.” Then he poses the ultimate public policy question of the age:
Should society be able to say of corporate innovations — like new chemicals, new genetically modified organisms, new gene therapies, new artificial intelligence applications, and global platforms — that they should be considered guilty until proven innocent? Guilty, that is, of presenting a hazard to human or environmental well-being, unless proved innocent of this beyond some agreed-upon standard of evidence? Or, put another way, should society ever have to take a risk with technology unless the probable benefit is something beyond increased profit for a corporation?
Rowland’s argument is that the threat from innovations such as AI and machine learning is serious in any case. Then add to the calculus the fact that they are largely developed and controlled by big tech and — eureka! — the threat is multiplied exponentially. “They financially benefit from powerful models,” he writes of these companies, “but do not internalize the costs borne by the world of releasing them prematurely.” Or, we might well add, releasing them at all.
The value of this book is that Rowland takes what is readily observed — what is obvious — and places it in a far broader perspective. We know, from their recent virtue signalling, that big corporations value public approbation, indeed that they must put a commercial value on it, even if sometimes, as in the case of Bud Light’s 2023 involvement with a trans influencer, it backfires, at least financially. Rowland sets forth the hypocrisy of companies that are “not interested in virtuous behaviour, only in the appearance of virtue, which is reputation,” while they
continue to mine the world’s soils and oceans, to dump harmful chemicals in waterways and the atmosphere, to promote the use of dangerous drugs in inappropriate conditions, to exploit adult and child workers, to seek to profit from sickness, war and natural disaster, to expose society to the unintended consequences of inadequately tested information technologies — unless they are faced with strictly enforced regulations that impose penalties greater than the financial gains of their antisocial behaviour.
His analysis is not surprising, yet it is still striking: technical advances are largely spawned by corporations that are beyond public accountability and without a moral core. What’s new is that today’s technology has power far greater than that of Union Pacific Railroad, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Sun Life, Imperial Oil, even IBM. It has the power to break all of society, and it is doing so before our very eyes.
David Marks Shribman won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1995. He teaches in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.