Editor’s Note

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Dear Reader —

Our culture finds itself in a moment in which the term “science and technology” has become fraught. Dreams of limitless progress now seem to be giving way to nightmares. Our talk of “tech” is split between visions of boundless transformation and dread that we will become manipulated, oppressed, obsolete, addicted, or simply miserable. “Science” seems to be falling from its lofty state, becoming mixed up, like so much else, in our political squabbles. We treat it as a referee who is unimpeachable when he favors my team, rigging the game when he favors yours.

The purpose of The New Atlantis is to offer clarity and guidance at a moment when we seem to be losing confidence in one of the pillars of modern civilization. It is the hope of this journal to help us all — as citizens, scientists, policymakers, and human beings — to deal more wisely and more creatively with both the burdens and the blessings of modern science and technology.

Yet if our moment is a difficult one, there is also something telling in our sense of shock at it — as if we were experiencing a sudden departure from the arc of history. And so we must recognize that it is the rule rather than the exception in human affairs that grandiose expectations will be frustrated and grand projects not turn out as their planners intended.

The ideal of science as an oracle in political disputes has placed a weight upon it that it cannot bear. The dream that scientific progress could, in effect, solve the human condition has warped our aspirations, making perennial problems seem like novel catastrophes. New technologies that promised disruption have delivered only too well.

Dystopian dread is the shadow of utopian dreams. The hope of The New Atlantis is to help steer away from both — and toward a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.

A culture in which science and technology work for human beings is one that:

  • Understands the core anxiety about tech as the threat of dehumanization.
  • Fosters a richer discourse about science and technology, one that is not limited to categories like autonomy, privacy, rights, corporate misbehavior, and disparate impact, but that also addresses perennial yet pressing concerns about dignity, degradation, the obligations between generations, the nature of the good life, and meaning and purpose.
  • Places wiser limits in both our values and our policies on dehumanizing technologies, research practices, and applications of science.
  • Resists the temptation to use medicine and biotechnology to conquer human nature or to regard our bodies as raw material, and instead sees the purpose of these practices as caring for the sick while protecting the dignity of every person.
  • Renews its understanding of science — as not a vehicle for putting humanity in its place, or for revealing what we cherish to be illusory, but an expression of human curiosity, endeavor, and excellence.
  • Moves beyond the misguided dreams of either making politics subservient to science or of ridding experts from politics once and for all, and instead creates new institutions, practices, and ways of thinking in which democratic deliberation and scientific expertise each inform, guide, and place sound limits upon the other.
  • Revives confidence in its ability to create new technologies and policies that ameliorate suffering, increase prosperity, strengthen family and communal bonds, counter threats to and from the environment, and open new possibilities for understanding and exploring the universe.

Accompanying the recent relaunch of our website, we are pleased to share with you a new way of thinking about the role that The New Atlantis plays amid an unsettled cultural moment. This journal has always aimed to encourage sound governance. This means that we seek to influence policy where it is needed — especially to protect the vulnerable from abuse, keep human nature human, strengthen democratic institutions, and advance our country’s technological vitality.

But we have also long been keen to guide our readers toward an understanding that the West’s troubled relationship to science and technology cannot be resolved only through political victories, laws, or debating ideas for debate’s sake. Rather, our work must be aimed primarily at culture: at the way we think, the kinds of questions we ask and fail to ask, the role that science plays in our view of ourselves.

Our website and our work is now organized into nine projects for renewing our culture’s relationship to science and technology. Each project is accompanied by a short editorial essay diagnosing one way that this relationship has gone awry and how this journal aims to right it. The essays, which also serve as mission statements for our work, are collected here.

We thank you as always for your readership and support, and welcome your feedback at letters@thenewatlantis.com.

Yours,

Ari Schulman
Editor

Ari Schulman, “Editor’s Note,” The New Atlantis, Number 63, Winter 2021, pp. 3–5.

A crucial moment

SUMMER 2021 — Please read this note about the most important opportunity The New Atlantis has seen since our launch.