Monday, November 8, 2010

Political Issues on the Horizon, Part 1

Americans went to the polls last Tuesday and, for the third time in as many election cycles, delivered a sharp rebuke to the incumbent party. No doubt concerned that the economic recovery seems to be stagnating and that unemployment remains high, the voters gave the House of Representatives back to the Republican Party. In the wake of the midterm elections in the United States, this is a good time to consider political issues on the horizon.

I generally shy away from making specific predictions about politics or the economy. Voters are fickle and economies are unpredictable, especially compared to the relatively simple trends that scientific and technological developments usually follow. However, I think we can at least speculate on the types of issues that are likely to become important, if not the precise way that they will be resolved by the voters and the government. In my next few blog posts, I’m going to explore some of the political issues that I think will grow in importance over the next decade, as well as a couple of oft-cited (and perhaps overblown) issues which may soon fade from the American political landscape.

Privacy. For the past couple decades, whenever a political gasbag has asked a judicial appointee about his or her views on “privacy,” it has typically been a code word for abortion. However, I believe privacy will soon become a political issue in its own right, spurred on by technological advances which encroach more and more on our privacy and demand access to sensitive information. Already, there have been court cases to determine if police can tag an automobile with a GPS tracker without a warrant, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come. RFID chips, which will soon replace bar codes on products, will be embedded in nearly everything we buy, allowing for constant surveillance and tracking of products (and by extension, of customers) from their point of manufacture to their point of disposal.

Additionally, we are probably no more than a decade from the point where sensors and face-recognition technology are commonplace in many public establishments, as in Minority Report, making it virtually impossible to step out of our own homes without appearing in a database somewhere. In the slightly more distant future (probably 10-20 years), insectoid-sized robots are on the horizon. DARPA is already designing them for use in military and spying applications, but eventually their spread to the general public is a virtual certainty as the cost of computing drops, allowing for practically anyone to monitor practically anyone.

In light of all of these emerging technologies, some erosion of our privacy seems almost inevitable. The extent of it remains open to debate. Will our governments pass privacy laws regulating how all of this information can be obtained and used? Or will our governments be part of the problem? Only time will tell.

Bioethics. The first decade of this century saw two important bioethical debates in the United States and Europe. In the United States, stem cell research was hotly debated in the first few years of the Bush presidency, but now seems to have decisively concluded in favor of scientific progress, as the huge benefits of stem cells become more obvious and the moral objections have fallen by the wayside. In Europe, the main bioethical debate of the past decade – genetically modified foods – is still ongoing. Many Europeans are concerned about the possibility of genetically modified foods wreaking unintentional havoc on the environment and public health. Although these fears do not have much scientific support, the controversy has nevertheless succeeded in quashing the industry in Europe, at least temporarily.

These are merely the first of many bioethical debates we will face in the 21st century. Some will be relatively trivial. For example, concerns about athletes on steroids may soon give way to concerns about professional athletes with enhanced body parts. A few years ago, Tiger Woods opted to get superhuman 20/15 vision through Lasik surgery, and the range of upgrades available to those who can afford them will soon be much wider. If athletes are able to buy improved bodies, it will make it difficult for “natural” athletes to compete. Will we have separate leagues for enhanced athletes and natural athletes? Will we ban these superhuman enhancements entirely, and if so, what qualifies as a superhuman enhancement?

Other bioethical concerns will be much more profound, and the government will have to take a stand. For example, if the technology exists and is widely available to screen for genetic abnormalities, would it be child abuse to not tinker with a fetus’ genome to prevent birth defects? And if preventing birth defects is morally acceptable (indeed if it is the ONLY morally acceptable option), why not preventing other undesirable traits like ugliness, propensity to violence, or low intelligence? Where does one draw the line? Eugenics, long discredited due to its ties to Nazism, may make a comeback in a world of easy access to genetic therapy.

Many of the questions related to human augmentation and genetic engineering have no easy answer, and any government decision is bound to leave many people feeling morally queasy. Look for political parties to become increasingly divided along the lines of these bioethical questions, with conservatives preferring a more restrictive approach to avoid creating ghastly new moral quandaries, and liberals favoring a more open approach to improving humanity through reengineering our own biology.

To be continued in another blog post…

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