Josh Hall likes Prometheus; I'm not so sure.
A few days ago, I posted a comment on changes happening at Foresight, including Josh Hall becoming president. I questioned whether Foresight would continue to take a rosy view of nanotechnology. A partial answer has arrived in the form of a Nanodot post from Josh.
Josh asserts that, in forecasting the effects of a technology, it is easy to see the downsides and hard to see the upsides. Fire, for example, is known to be dangerous in that it can burn people; even Homo habilis knew that. But Homo habilis could not conceive of the positive side: the Apollo moon landings, and the global transportation network powered by combustion. A caveman might have rejected fire on the basis of known dangers, without being able to make a well-informed choice.
I think this is a one-sided view. One of the biggest concerns of the present time is anthropogenic global warming. Guess what put all the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Our control of fire. It remains to be seen whether the progress of economics (coal burning and unsustainable agriculture) will push the global climate past a disastrous tipping point before the progress of technology can pull it back. But if our hypothetical cave dwellers understood that one possible consequence of fire was that most of the planet would turn into desert for 100,000 years, as James Lovelock expects... perhaps they would make a rational choice to reject it.
My point is that it's not only the positive consequences of a technology that are hard to forecast and hard to understand. Even technologies as well-established, beneficial, and canonical as fire can have consequences that we are still struggling to deal with or even comprehend. And some of the potential consequences are disastrous almost beyond imagining.
Of course, nothing is all good or all bad. In the next few decades, molecular manufacturing will probably (depending on how it is deployed) give humans the ability to undertake planet-scale engineering. This will make it relatively feasible to moderate the planet's climate and chemistry. It will also make it quite easy to destroy the planet's climate - and I'm not talking about gray goo, but about deliberate applications of high-throughput high-performance manufacturing.
To us today, writing and reading these words on a computer in a comfortable climate-controlled environment, it seems inconceivable that we might want to reject the gift of fire. To our descendents fifty generations from now, whether they are scratching out a living in the few remaining habitable square miles near the Arctic Circle (Lovelock's prediction), or struggling to cope with the nano-built flying land mines that have already killed 99% of the population, the answer may not be so obvious.
I am not arguing for stopping technology. I don't think we can, and I don't think we should try. But let's not pretend that technology is going to make things better. It will give us new problems and opportunities, even as it solves some old problems. The best we can do is to try to guide technology in directions that are less destructive than they might be, and keep looking for new options to solve problems that (to paraphrase Einstein) can't be solved by the systems that created them.