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Your iPhone or your left arm?

Your iPhone or your left arm?

When art meets science

Who: Tsjalling Swierstra, philosopher at Arts and Social Sciences

Book: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Target group: students of Arts and Social Sciences

“When we are worried about technology, it is often about the question: What if devices don’t do what they are supposed to do?” says philosopher Tsjalling Swierstra. “In Brave New World it is exactly the opposite: what happens when technology does exactly what it promises?” Technology is not the only thing that is perfect in Aldous Huxley’s futuristic universe. People are programmed (and drugged) in such a way that they are always healthy and happy. All their needs are immediately satisfied, scarcity no longer exists. “If the lack of tension between your needs and the satisfaction of these needs means happiness, then this is a perfect world. But if I ask students if they would want to live in such a world, the answer is No.”

Explaining exactly why, they find more difficult. “Instant gratification of one’s needs would take a lot of fun out of life. Dealing with adverse circumstances appears to be one of the aspects that make people flourish. An unpleasant experience can ultimately enrich your life. But you can’t go looking for trouble; it has to happen to you. It is like in a fairy tale, where ‘And they lived happily ever after’ is the end. We don’t want to read about that anymore, that is the boring part. The struggle that takes place before the ‘happy ever after’ is what we identify with more easily.”

Misfortune doesn’t fall upon the people in Brave New World. “In such a world, where everything is controlled, you are never surprised by anything, and you don’t develop yourself. You learn from relationships that provide opposition – friends, partners, family – but that is no longer there.”

According to Swierstra, we don’t need to be afraid of the future. “The good news is that technology will never lead to a perfect world, because it will always have its own frustrations and shortcomings. And it also creates scarcity. A lot of technology promises to save time, but if you ask people what they lack, then everyone shouts ‘Time!’. Besides, our needs change with time. If we were all satisfied with the level of prosperity of the year 1900, then we could sit under a tree all day long.”

Swierstra hopes that by reading the book, students will think about the role that technology plays in their lives. “And about their dependence on such technology. Every now and again in my lectures I ask students what they would rather surrender: their left arm or their mobile phones. Everyone then says their mobile phones, but I don’t believe that anymore. Why do people stand in line, half frozen, two days before the latest iPhone goes on sale?”

In this column lecturers recommend art that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do

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