“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that technology doesn’t change who we are, it magnifies who we are, the good and the bad.” Tim Cooke, CEO Apple Inc.
As my family and I prepare for yet another week of COVID-19 isolation, I wonder daily how we would have managed had this crisis emerged even a decade ago. All three of us — my wife, my 10-year-old daughter, and I — rely on and spend large chunks of every day collaborating online for work and school. Video conferencing has become our principal means of socializing. We Zoom everything from extended family gatherings to virtual dance parties. We now order our groceries (and everything else) online, and, much to our astonishment, some goods are dropped off curb side by AI controlled robots. Streaming services, search engines and internet news occupy the corners of each day. COVID-19 has hugely amplified how foundational our technologies have become to our very existence.
In fact, technology is more than just foundational to our existence. It defines who and what we are. In a very literal sense, technology is an extension of us, of our bodies, our beings. It is a manifestation of evolution at work. Here’s what I mean. During the period that stretched between 2,400,000 and 40,000 years ago, with the advent of our large forebrains, opposable digits and language, the mechanics of evolution fundamentally changed in our species. It shifted from primarily biological adaptation to primarily technological adaptation. We began to take up the stuff of the universe around us to create artifacts that enabled us to overcome any survival challenge and to amplify and extend our biological capacities.
As our technologies amplified our abilities to manipulate the world around us, they also increased our understanding of the world around us. And, as our understanding increased, it further amplified our abilities to manipulate the world around us (through our technologies) and so further increased our understanding. It’s quite feasible that this self-reinforcing feedback loop, which began with our first technologies, was the catalyst for language and our self-reflective consciousness. And, as our abilities to manipulate and understand the world have grown, that loop has become more complex and potent with the corresponding evolution of our social structures and culture. Now remember that technology refers to the practical application of knowledge in the material world. A stone axe is technology. So is the Hubble Space Telescope.
A simple thought experiment illustrates how our technologies have literally become an extension of our bodies. If you hold your finger under the tap to test the temperature of the water, what happens? First you have a thought about testing the water with your finger. You turn on the tap, extend your finger and begin. Almost immediately your attention shifts away from your finger as you focus on the temperature of the water. Your finger, about which you are now oblivious, is just an extension of you taking in information about the water. When you pick up your smart phone and talk to or text someone, what happens? At first you focus on the phone… opening the app or dialing the number. But almost immediately, your awareness of the phone recedes. The object of your awareness, your intention, becomes the other person and the relational field between you. Without a thought, the phone has disappeared as an object of your attention and become an extension of… you, just like your finger. And, along with your phone, all of the incredible infrastructure that connects you to that other person, who is maybe thousands of miles away, has become an extension of you. This experience is always true once you acclimate to a technology, whether it be a fork, a car or a particle accelerator.
The epitome of this experience, which has been elevated by COVID-19 isolation, is found in our ubiquitous communication and information technologies. They have become extensions of who we are. Through them, even while we are physically separated, we are more deeply connected to every other human being on the planet than at any time in human history. All of human knowledge is available at our fingertips, and the seemingly infinite potential to collaborate and co-create is further accelerating the complexity and depth of our knowledge and technologies. More than half a century ago the French philosopher and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, forecast the emergence of this profound state with remarkable prescience. He called it the noosphere. He saw it as a next step in our evolutionary journey, the formation of a living layer of collective consciousness surrounding Earth, generated by this remarkable feedback loop, animated by evolving consciousness and accelerating connectivity, driven by the drumbeat of evolving technology and culture.
The emergence of the noosphere is a massive system change unlike any that our species has ever experienced. Its magnitude is greater than the dawn of agriculture or the industrial revolution, and we cannot really fathom how it will ultimately change us, our understanding of the world around us, or our ability to further manipulate it. As with any systems change, this point of emergence is an edge condition, a place in between one paradigm and another, a threshold between one way of being and another. And, like all edge conditions, it is chaotic, generative and fraught with unseen perils. COVID-19 may be precipitating previously unthinkable physical, emotional, and economic damage, but it is also gifting us with a preview of some of those perils.
In the coming decade, as emergent exponential technologies like AI, VR, big data, biotech, nanotech, digital fabrication, and robotics completely alter the fabric of our economy and culture, many people are going to suffer. The staggering unemployment foisted on us by COVID-19 is giving us a taste of what we will soon experience at an even greater scale. “The Great Decoupling” is a name given by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee to the separation of two data streams that once seemed inextricably linked: rising productivity and rising employment. The rapid acceleration of emergent exponential technologies has changed all that. As we peer into our near future, estimates of job loss over the next couple of decades due to technological advances range as high as 47 percent, which makes the current corona-induced unemployment rate look like economic boom times. COVID-19 has both given us a taste of what’s to come and dished up an opportunity to reflect on how we want that to play out.
I use “we” here loosely. For as “we” have settled into our COVID-heightened dependency on our technologies, I have become acutely aware of the billions who don’t have access to them or, even if they did have access, the means to use them. How is their suffering being amplified by that lack as they are forced to shelter in place, unable to connect to each other or to order up the necessities of daily life with a few clicks? Here again COVID-19 is giving us a glimpse into the future. The digital divide is real and growing in spite of many good efforts to reduce it. It follows the same fault line as economic inequality, the great wealth gap, which is real and growing wider every day.
The invisible SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 is making visible the future we should anticipate if we continue to follow the current trajectory of exponential technologies — massive unemployment coupled with attendant psychological and sociological disruption and the self-reinforcing, widening divide between those who have and those who have not. All of this will happen at the same time as we are grappling with problems that are exponentially worse than COVID-19: climate change, skyrocketing population, declining resources, mass species extinction, etc. You can see the mess we’re heading into. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The emergent noosphere holds the promise for a different future; a future in which everyone flourishes, one in which our technologies, which are an extension of us, support the well-being of the planet, every human being and our continued evolution.
The difference between these futures is simple. Mindset. Paradigm. It’s the “why” rather than the “what” we invent or the “how” we use our technologies. Why do we want to manipulate the world? Why do we want to amplify our abilities, expand our understanding? Is it to improve our individual chances for survival? Is it to improve the quality of all life on earth? Is it to satisfy our itch to know who and what and why we are here? Is it to conquer, to profit, to accumulate, to protect ourselves and our interests against others? Is it to relieve suffering or to create suffering? Is it to extract value whatever the cost or to regenerate all that sustains life? I believe the answer is yes to all of these questions to some extent. However, our lives are currently dominated by the paradigms underlying neoliberal capitalism, patriarchy and populism and the majority of our technologies — and the businesses and governments that develop them — reflect that.
We need a new word to talk about the “why,” so I’ve invented it: technoos.
Technoos is defined as the mindset or paradigm from which we approach both the creation and the use of our technologies. “Noos” comes from Greek and means mind. It is the same root from which Chardin coined “noosphere.” The concept of technoos is neutral, just like technology. There is nothing inherently good or bad about technology or about a specific technology. So too, technoos refers to no particular mindset, but rather to the fact that there is always an unspoken paradigm driving the invention and the subsequent use of our technologies.
And that is what matters.
Two icons of modern technology often seen as polar opposites, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, each repeatedly and implicitly reference technoos in their interviews, speeches and writings. “Tools are just tools,” says Steve Jobs. “Technology is just a tool,” says Bill Gates. While these quotes are extracted from different contexts, when viewed within their contexts their inference is the same. Technology has no inherent usefulness or power or goodness or badness. It is the people who invent and use the technology and the mindset governing the thinking and behavior of those people that impart such qualities. Technoos.
Our technologies may be the tools of our demise over the next few decades, or they may be developed, repurposed and deployed to support the flourishing of all life. It all hinges on technoos. The invitation in this moment is for us to shift our awareness from simply suffering through these impacts of COVID-19 — massive involuntary unemployment and escalated digital exclusion — to embrace them as a preview of a certain future under the prevailing technoos.
Knowing that emergent exponential technologies will radically alter the world of work to a far greater extent than what we are experiencing through COVID-19, how might we change our relationship to them in anticipation of the suffering that this seismic shift will precipitate? And how might a new technoos spark changes in culture, policy and social structures to mitigate or eliminate that suffering? Similarly, witnessing the vast swaths of humanity who are excluded from technological privilege and how those of us who have ready access to these technologies are able to use them to ameliorate our current isolation and resource constraints, can we envision a world of universal digital inclusion?
Technological adaptation is the dominant modality for the evolution of our species, and our technologies, no matter how simple or complex, are embodied extensions of who we are. They have empowered us to subdue (or eliminate) each other and every other species on Earth, extract whatever resources we need to make whatever we want (sickening the planet in the process) and, if we choose, given us the means to end it all. They have also so amplified our physical and mental capabilities that we can build cities housing millions, talk face to face with people on other continents, travel in space, peer back to the dawn of our universe, and unlock the mysteries of matter and life. We have done all of this spontaneously and organically over our brief history as a species with little awareness of or consideration for technoos.
Now it’s time.
Sandy Wiggins, May 2020