When does technology become a threat to humanity?
What is technology
At this point, humanity has reached the highest level of dependency upon technology. This dependency has become so deeply entrenched that it has come to be totally acceptable for some to declare that life might seem meaningless without technology. According to this study, the average American nowadays spends more than 11 hours per day “watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media”. Are we going in the right direction? Are we handling well enough our own development as a species and our dependencies upon technology? What are the good sides and the bad sides of technology and what should we avoid so as to not end up losing our innate humanity.
As humans evolved over time, one of the overarching distinctions between us and the animals was the ability to use our intelligence to develop technology, in its different forms. But first, please allow me, so as to avoid any kind of confusion, to clarify that by technology I refer, in general, to the knowledge of techniques and methods, while I can also refer to machines or structures (e.g. aqueducts) that allow a simplification or enhancement of the work usually done by humans.
Technologies that made the difference
While reading the intriguing book The Shallows: What the internet does to your brain, by Nicholas Carr, I found out that two of the most influential technological inventions off all times, are the MAP and the CLOCK. These two inventions have definitely impacted our evolution irreversibly. Just try to imagine how life would look like if the notion of time did not exist, and we were mere observers of the cyclical flow of days and nights. Clocks have helped us define periods of the day, and we started better organizing ourselves. Thus, we started thinking in terms of hours and minutes and this approach impacted our lives for good. On the other hand, maps, besides being a method of storing geographical data, helped us develop ways of perceiving and making sense of the world, ultimately contributing to the development of abstract thinking. There is a whole part of the brain called hippocampus that grows along with the use of maps and supports spatial orientation. There is also a famous experiment on London taxi drivers that proved they “not only have larger-than-average memory centers in their brains, but also that their intensive training is responsible for their respective growth. Excelling at one form of memory, however, may inhibit another”. Memorizing more than 25.000 streets led to the over-development of their hippocampus, in defiance of other regions of their brains.
Another influential invention was WRITING. As banal and widespread as it may seem nowadays, writing faced a lot of resistance in ancient Greece thousands of years ago, in the times of Plato and Socrates. The book above mentions how poetry (oral) and literature (writing) were at that point opposing ideals of intellectual life. In an oral driven society, people had to rely a lot on their memory. That is why, at that point, poetry was intensively used, as rhymes were helping people easily remember things (imagine somebody reciting an income statement). The introduction of writing made things easier, but also induced the fear that memory will go weak for those that will embrace the new technology. Looking back, writing was a must for the development of modern societies. No matter how good you were at remembering poems, there was always a physical limitation on how much you can memorize. An oral society could not have achieved our level of development. The introduction of writing has clearly changed our cognitive development, again, irreversibly. As people were able to write, part of the cognitive processing power was freed, so that they could take care of something else. Memory did not go weak, as the new system was challenging us to focus on remembering other things and made new, more complex connections. We just got a “hard drive” upgrade.
As our history is replete with wars, WEAPONS have always been technologies that provided strategic world dominance. People have been always, basically, competing for a limited amount of resources, thus, having a technologically advanced army has been an economic and political advantage. The 16th, 17thand 18thcenturies’ conquistadors relied a lot on their naval supremacy, firearms and light equipment to expand beyond Europe to the Americas, Oceania, Africa, and Asia. The atomic bomb clearly leaned the fate of the WWII and established a new world order ever since. After dominating the world for many centuries, the European powers lost their supremacy in favor of the US, as the new technological super power that mastered the new invention.
Extending our memory
Intellectual technologies became widespread along with the invention of books and printing. The ability to extend our memory capacity through media such as books, have helped societies evolve faster. Whether we consider science or culture, books and printing have contributed firstly as media for information storage that allowed people to pass along to the next generation what was considered important. Most importantly, writing, books and printing have completely changed how people think. The ability to store data outside our memory has allowed us to clear up some of the cognitive resources and start thinking of something else. The change in how people process information lead, ultimately, to a change in how people use their brains. Reading is an intense cognitive experience, that introduces readers to an altered state of mind. Humans started developing the ability to express long periods of focus and mindfulness when reading. You’ve probably had similar experiences when plunging into a good book, having forgotten everything else and vividly imagined the experiences you read.
Technology is an extension of the human abilities, as it usually allows us to achieve more. Nicholas Carr classifies it into 4 categories, depending on which of our human abilities it extends: physical strength (plow, car etc.), sensitivity of our senses (glasses etc.), reshape nature to better fit out needs (agriculture) and finally intellectual technologies (books, computer, cell phone, maps etc.). As they were introduced to our lives, they considerably changed the way we conceive and act upon the world. But what they have ultimately done, is to change the way our brains work.
Please observe my trying to stress out that technology ultimately modifies the way humans behave and this translates into physical changes on the individuals (especially how our brain works) that often led to societal changes (the way we act as a society), or better said it tampers with our culture.
There is no doubt with regard to their usefulness and/or positive impact, but technologies’ adverse inferences are also present. And it is to these side-effects that we need to pay great attention, as nowadays technology is more spread than ever, reaching towards all countries and social levels.
When did the world go digital
The last 25 years were marked by the widespread use of the information technologies, aka computers and internet, which I will refer to from now on as digital technology or just the digital. We have achieved, supported by the digital, to put our lives on fast forward. Everything that can be done online is faster than it was 25 years ago. We have entered a continuous race to do more and more every day, at the click of a button. Babies nowadays learn how to swipe before even saying “mama”. As stated before and please don’t get me wrong on this, digital technology has clearly had a positive measurable impact upon humanity, but let’s look a little at the downsides.
Mainly, the digital changed the way we read or interpret data. An activity that was formerly done mainly through books, nowadays is done via various types of screens. Nonetheless, although we don’t fully perceive the difference, our digital gadgets do not really behave like books. One digital device typically incorporates many data sources such as emails, Facebook, Twitter, chats etc. All these compete for parts of our time and struggle to get it through innumerate methods (notifications, sounds, email alerts etc.). For some years now, they have also started invading our cars and wearables. You are basically connected at all times, anywhere and your attention is distracted by different triggers that just want a part of your time.
The real issue is that we are not physically built for this. Our brains are not designed to ingest that much data, from so many sources and in such a disruptive mode. After hundreds of years of reading books, adapting to the new media is at least challenging, especially for the first generations to start using the new digital media. By using books for so many years as our primary medium, we got accustomed to sustained focus on relatively narrow topics. This uninterrupted pursuit of a mental thread allowed us to develop abilities like analytical thinking and creativity. By memorizing the information through reading, we managed to make connections, as neurons linked together through many synapses. By making connections we also gained profound understanding of preferred topics and become very knowledgeable. That knowledge definitely served as a base for progress.
On the other hand, the new digital media promotes the complete opposite of the above, meaning fast reading, multitasking and coverage of many topics in a short amount of time. Digital media doesn’t let us focus too much or deepen any subject. The amount of dopamine released by all these notifications on our mobiles, that we think might unveil something new and useful, is just too high, and we cannot resist it. That is why we have all these pop ups on our screens, maybe even as you read this blog post. But, is this the right way to do it, or to better put it, does this modus operandi make us smarter? Not at all, on the contrary.
Nicholas Carr argues that the new technique we use to ingest information, affects our profoundness, creativity and focusing power and as a result we become more superficial. It is true that the Internet gives us access to more information than ever before, but we just cannot seem to get enough. “One inch deep and one mile long” is an expression that perfectly describes the new habit. Most of the times we stick to merely reading titles, diagonal reading and fast scrolling of news feeds. We are using the Internet as an extension of our memory. Everything can be found there, so why bother memorizing. But with no memories, connections can’t be made. The complexity of our brains, as a result of thousands of years of evolution, is just put aside by relying on technology to do the interesting part.
Other authors have also exposed the negative influence of technology upon humanity. One notable book on this topic is Henry Kissinger’s World Order. The book explores how world order has changed over the years, and how nations managed to grow strong and dominate others. One of the key factors that the author considers to have influenced world order is technology. At the present time a digital arms race is undergoing. Developed countries invest significant amounts of money into cyber security, artificial intelligence and quantum computers because these are tactical advantages that might turn the tables in the near future. On the current use of digital technologies, the author has also some key remarks. He mentions that the content of the human mind can be classified into several components: data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Our objective, as humans, should be to obtain wisdom. The digital realm focuses only on the first part of this chain: data and information, by facilitating its availability, everywhere and anytime. Yet, a surplus of information might hinder the acquisition of knowledge and prevent us from achieving wisdom. The internet is shrinking the human perspective.
Digital media brought also some improvements such as eye-hand coordination (games), reflexes, visual processing. But these are not qualities that could actually make us more intelligent. Multitasking is just not for humans, at least not in these times. Just like Seneca puts it “To be everywhere is to be nowhere”.
To summarize, the way we use digital technology nowadays may not be suited for our current level of cognitive development. We are becoming more superficial with a very high chance of irreversibility. Of course, technology was meant to extend and improve our aptitudes, but the question is whether we should give up some of our native abilities just because technology can take them over. Is it appropriate, or even fair, in the context of the natural evolution, to give away our unique capabilities?
One can argue that there might be another point of view to this matter. Natural evolution is sluggish. Enhancements are barely visible in one generation only (drinking milk as adults, missing wisdom tooth), as usually genetic evolution is rather slow. On the other hand, our society is characterized by anything but patience. People want to see, feel and do all kinds of stuff within their lifetime. Seeing their bodies evolve overnight is something that many eccentrics dream about. And there comes one possible solution — bioengineering, or the science of improving human abilities by adding mechano-electrical parts to our bodies. There are many authors developing on this idea. One of the most popular views upon the topic is shared by Yuval Harari is his book “Homo Deus”. In his view, in a few years, we might start seeing a new kind of super humans, bioengineered to possess enhanced abilities. Maybe you want a better memory, or a bionic arm / eye. Basically, everything will be possible at the right price. This might even lead to the creation of a new enhanced race, that could eliminate the archaic homo-sapiens. Should such things really happen or how soon could this be possible, remains to be seen, but the thought of it is just thrilling. An exciting article on this topic is written by Kevin Warwick and can be found here. The author explores a number of scenarios from brain implants (that already happen) up to biological brains in robot bodies, providing also the current status of research. How would you call a half human half machine entity that can think faster and better, that is permanently connected to the internet, makes use of artificial intelligence algorithms to extend its natural abilities and is also much stronger than a human? Should that be a human, a cyborg, a robot or what?
Just as in the example above on the ancient debate between literature vs. poetry, digital technologies have given us opportunities to progress one step further. Books have serious downsides when it comes to finding pieces of information. Reading a book requires time, and time is a precious resource in our days. The memory extension that we got through connecting to the Internet is just massive, almost making the default human memory redundant. We argued that memory is implicitly important when developing intelligence. Nevertheless, we need to be very careful with our next steps as trading higher intelligence for speed might not be the winning trade off.
Beyond doubt technology has supported human development over the years, representing, at the same time, the ultimate achievement of our cerebral superiority. No other species on Earth can develop tools with such precision as humans. I reaffirm that this is not an anti-tech manifesto, but I reckon that, it might be at least unwise to lose part of our human traits by outsourcing our most important and magnificent skills to machines. Nature might consider that we don’t need them anymore. Cautiousness should be expressed when using such technologies and side effects should be properly analyzed and treated, should we need it.
Corporations are usually driven by financial interests and might not have the proper incentive to adopt human friendly policies, if that could affect their profit margins. Thus, governments, academia and NGOs should and must take action. We need coherent public policies that should ultimately lead to a coherent strategy for development of humans, not the brutalization of our good sense and judgement. HAL, Skynet, Wall-E, Jarvis, Tau (AI movies characters) and others, are just around the corner, waiting for their turn.
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Originally published at technology-insights.com on November 12, 2018.