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Biology, Society and Machines

George Bugliarello

Balanced Benefits

A fundamental challenge for our civilization is to identify and provide every individual with the minimal level of biosoma that is essential for survival, health and human dignity. Civilization has little meaning if this minimum level is not met. It is a level that must extend beyond purely biological needs to encompass a set of indispensable machines and social interactions. To see how far we are from achieving it, one needs only to look at the earth's one billion poor or at the ways we destroy, often carelessly and inadvertently, human dignity.

The essential biosoma changes with each individual, with age, with disease or injury, and from one society to another. There are, however, certain needs—such as food, shelter, water and affection—that are universal. There are also ever-newer requirements for survival in an increasingly complex society. For instance, the several hundred heat-wave fatalities that occurred in Chicago three summers ago could have been avoided if more attention had been paid to the deadly combination of machines and society that caused them: victims living in stifling, airless cubicles in "projects," at times without water and with doors and windows closed because of fear of crime.

In an increasingly information-based society, a new and potentially devastating kind of poverty is information disenfranchisement, the lack of access to computers, telephones or the Internet. Some people lack access to the information that has become indispensable for jobs, health and political participation. For example, there may be more than one billion people in the world who have never made a phone call.

Beyond the essential biosoma, we can aspire to a level where the biological, social and machine elements are well balanced, are sustainable indefinitely without destroying the environment and enhance the human condition. These desirable biosoma levels can be achieved only if we succeed in avoiding imbalances among the three elements. In a world in which hunger remains rampant, machines and organizations hold the key to producing more food and distributing it equitably. But machines can unduly influence the development of society and consume too many of our resources or destroy us through war and terrorism. Likewise, a social element may overwhelm individuals, as in societies in which an individual has no rights.

The synergy of humans, society and machines—the biosoma—is the fundamental cause of the unprecedented material prosperity of many nations. An assessment of contemporary society might lead one to conclude, however, that the state of our biosoma is already counterproductive. The organized use of machines is dominating our daily life by forcing us to spend hours in congested traffic, by steadily making our work more abstract and threatening its very ethos, and by and leading to a deterioration of person-to-person interactions, replacing them with person-to-machine ones. Is our present condition transitory? Will it eventually lead to a more balanced and desirable biosoma or will these trends will be exacerbated? To approach these questions, we must develop a much broader interdisciplinary education for everyone—specialists and non-specialists alike—so that we can understand the promise as well as the dangers that can arise from interactions between biology, society and machines.

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