If you think you’re smarter than your future phone, think again
A discussion with international information and communications technology (ICT) colleagues recently on the dangers of our current highly technically-dominated world revealed that what we now see around us is a world composed almost exclusively of technology — which many of us find broken and highly disruptive to how we think and flourish.
We formulated two key ideas:
- Technology is a key force of function in our society that needs to be radically rethought and intentionally directed. “Technology” (as a capitalised term) is the accumulated technologies of human systems, which are increasingly digital in nature.
- We should be recruiting “technology” (lowercase) – the processes, conscious or otherwise, in which techniques get adopted, combined, accumulated and diffused within a social group – as an asset to make a better world that leaves us all and the planet better off. In fact, we have to.
That is easily said, so this needed to be worked out further.
My colleague Pat Scannell, who has spent the last two years working on two separate book projects, came up with the following overview:
The disruption of thought
Scannell makes a case that technological acceleration is literally changing the way we think — disrupting the adaptive aspects across the three planes of thinking: the “wet” biological plane (what most people think of as the brain but is really an embodied and complex set of systems); the cultural (how we think through people) and the physical/technological (how we think through things). What evolved over time to be adaptive is no longer adaptive because things are changing faster than we can evolve or adapt.
What should be different? We should choose what we want to think about and how we want to think with an eye towards the anachronisms shaping our current thinking. Once that happens, markets for new and better tech will open up to serve those needs.
The great irony of technology
Technology, asserts Scannell, has given us what we have asked for and as a result nearly all of us are much better off, objectively, than humans were 20,50 or 100 years ago. He also makes the case that we are in the middle of long-term declines in “subjective” measures — that is, we feel worse.
What should be different? If Technology (capital “T”) is a magic wand, giving us what we want, we need to learn to ask it for things that leave us better off, subjectively.
So, when we say that we need to radically rethink technology, we need to be thinking not just about the technology in our lives – or just our relationship with technology – but also about our relationship with our own present and future.
What do we want and why? If technology gives us what we want, but it disrupts our thinking and leaves us feeling worse, why don’t we ask for something else? And no, “more is not better”. We don’t need Starbucks to give us an extra-extra-large 12-shot-latte or Samsung to give us an absolutely ridiculous wall-sized television.
However,t these evolving needs being all about “more is better” is part of the root cause of why we feel worse about our lives.
Here is an insightful overview of some (grossly simplified) concerns from the 20th Century that are still valid:
Technological societies become obsessed with finding “one best way” for every facet of life and in this quest, processes and the “how-to” of earlier generations are pushed aside to make way for techniques which yield better outcomes. The problem with this, found philosopher and social scientist Jacques Ellul, is that the modern person is always anxious and insecure, constantly adapting to changes he cannot comprehend.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard believed that the modern human experience is a simulation of reality. The cues we get about the world are mediated to us increasingly by symbols, media and technology and these cues are inaccurate. Meaning becomes meaningless by being infinitely mutated.
In a process he called the “precession of simulacra”, Baudrillard said:
‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.’
Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion wrote about this very issue in relation to mechanisation:
‘What did mechanisation mean to man? Never has mankind possessed so many instruments for abolishing slavery. But the promises of a better life have not been kept. All we have to show so far is a rather disquieting inability to organise the world, or even to organise ourselves.’
In terms of the future, he said:
‘Future generations will perhaps designate this period as one of mechanised barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all… Means have outgrown man… It [mechanisation] must be channelled. Like the powers of nature, mechanisation depends on man’s capacity to make use of it and to protect himself against its inherent perils.’
Our biggest challenge?
‘… to restore the lost equilibrium between inner and outer reality.’
Futurist Alvin Toffler described the accelerated rate of technological and social change that leaves people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” as “future shock”.
In 1931, UK Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill gave a major speech in which he said:
We all take the modern conveniences and facilities as they are offered to us, without being grateful or consciously happier. But we simply could not live if they were taken away. We assume that progress will be constant… It is also very fortunate, for if it stopped or were reversed, there would be a catastrophe of unimaginable horror.
Mankind has gone too far to go back and is moving too fast to stop. There are too many people maintained not merely in comfort but in existence by processes unknown a century ago for us to afford even a temporary check, still less a general setback, without experiencing calamity in its most frightful form…
It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and discovery rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs… After all, this material progress, in itself so splendid, does not meet any of the real needs of the human race.
In a tract titled ‘Economic possibilities for our Grandchildren’, noted English economist John Keynes said:
If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.
He described our ‘permanent problem’:
Thus, for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares; how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well…
Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.
His big concern is that he foresaw the growing potential for ‘deaths of despair’:
‘It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day [sic] in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing!’
Lewis Mumford, an American philosopher of technology, believed:
‘All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations, if these processes continue unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead.’
‘Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalised, collective organisations.’
American anthropologist Joseph Tainter has four relevant observations for us:
that as societies become increasingly complex, each innovation is marginally less effective than those that came before;
that each new innovation requires more energy and resources because it is marginally less efficient;
that each new innovation comes with a cost, not only to create it but the additional energy and resources consumed to manage and sustain that innovation; and
finally, looking across the entire scope of human history, this time is different because the complexity of the last century (as experienced in our daily lives, in our national economies, in the global web of networks and relationships and in systems that sustain the modern human condition) is completely unprecedented.
Obviously, there is the issue that every generation feels overwhelmed. However, Tainter shares what many of the writers above opined — that this time is different.
I think there would be general agreement with statements encouraging us to “radically rethink and intentionally direct”; that there is a need to recruit technology as “an asset to make a better world that leaves us all and the planet better off” — not simply keep producing technology gains that offer short-term gratification (a “sugar hit”).
The question here is: how achievable is this, really? As Pat Scannell mentioned above, we are certainly not the first to come to such a conclusion.
Looking back on those stellar minds who came before us, their warnings and opinions have not resulted in significant change and as a result we might be worse off — in relation to the longer-term future of humanity. Will the same apply to this very discussion, with people making similar statements several decades into the future?
For the time being, it looks like we will muddle on and only when a crisis hits will certain regulatory and legal changes (for the better) be made. Similarly, under pressure, technology companies will likely make improvements (for the better). If nothing serious happens, it looks like this will continue to be the way forward.
Will humans, if we, at a certain point, hit an existential crisis, be prepared to make radical changes such as a total rethink? Perhaps.
Will it be too late at that time? Perhaps.
Over millennia we have made progress, often simply by muddling on, so I would say there is hope.
Discussions such as this and the people involved in them, as well as the books and publications they produce, are most certainly positive contributions which can hopefully influence this vital transformation.