Technology's Impact on Humanity


Why our current technology culture endangers human diversity and freedom

 

Also published in OM Times Magazine

 

About 3.8 billion years ago, a type of molecular complexity arose on Earth, which we now call biological life. And for nearly as long these self-replicating structures – having evolved into countless forms – remained the only type of evolving complexities on our planet.

This changed about 2.5 million years ago with the advent of the first stone tools. The new type of evolving complexity – which we now call technology – has been key for human development. It isn’t self-replicating – yet. But with our help, it has also evolved into a myriad of forms.

Over the last 200 years, technology’s capabilities have been increasing very quickly – particularly so since World War II. In doing so technology’s relationship with humanity is gradually shifting. In the times before industrialization, technology has taken a supportive role in our human endeavors. It was one aspect among many other defining aspects of human existence.

Modern Tech is Domineering Our Existence
In our times, this is changing: technology is increasingly domineering our human existence. The faster technological capabilities progress and the more varied they become, the more minutely and comprehensively human life will be defined by technology. This development – if left unchanged – is bound to steadily dilute and displace other defining aspects of human existence.

We have always been technological beings. But we are also, for instance, social, spiritual, artistic, and moral/ethical beings, with a sense of self and a sense of freedom. In order to live out these other aspects of our human essence, they must receive our basic human resources. These include our time and attention, our creativity, or cooperative abilities. By devoting ever more of these resources to technology creation and use, they are no longer available for all things, not technology.

Our relationship with technology is becoming increasingly complicated. It’s easy to get lost in the great amount of both advantages and disadvantages that our technology culture produces. But if our species is to be more than merely a very brief evolutionary stepping stone for the next big “evolutionary thing”, we must pay a lot more attention to the fundamental aspects of our relationship with technology. Following are three examples of these kinds of basic aspects.

Instincts
Regardless of all the able technology we’ve created over the last few hundred years, we are still biological beings, millions of years in the making. Our most basic motivations and behaviors run deep. Even though the concept of “instinct” is not used for humans, using it nevertheless serves as a reminder of how deeply ingrained the motivations and behaviors are that compel us to invent and apply technology in the ways we still do.

Not acknowledging these archaic catalysts makes real change far more difficult. We stay blind to the root causes of our knee-jerk behaviors, vainly dealing with symptom after symptom.

Responsibility
There are so many things to consider in our efforts to form decisions which do our ethical views justice. The flood of appeals to our sense of responsibility, understandably, makes us feel weary at times. That our lives – for those of us who pay attention – have become so complex has a lot to do with technology. By increasing our technological abilities, we, in turn, expose ourselves to more and more intricacies that formerly were nature’s “responsibility”.

This kind of responsibility is not primarily an ethical one. It is, first of all, a matter-of-fact one. An example: if we humans create increasingly powerful means of prenatal diagnostics, we, by consequence, increasingly burden ourselves with questions of evolutionary selection. Perhaps it’s time for us to acknowledge that the speed and breadth of our technological development exceed, by far, our managerial abilities.

Restraint
Connected to the above two points is the one about self-restraint. If we acknowledge the power of our deep-seated motivations in technology creation and use. And if we understand that by indiscriminately manipulating intricate circumstances – intricacies that used to be embedded in the grand extent of nature’s overall complexity – we take on liabilities that are beyond our capacities. Then we may conclude that self-restraint is in our best interest.

We cannot invent and apply technology the way our ancestors did when they came up with the spear or a better bow. By now, our realms of manipulation have become so fundamental that we must find equally fundamental new ways in our approach towards technology creation and use.