Computing and humanity

Chris Shipley recently wrote about “human computing” on his blog. It’s a decent little piece about projecting computing use into the future, and how it will affect humans.

One paragraph struck me in particular:

It is not enough to make computers easier to use, they must become transparent in order to drive order of magnitude growth in adoption of new technology-enabled devices. In effect, technology will not become fully pervasive until it becomes fully invisible. Today, technology is a barrier as much as it is a conduit between individuals.

This paragraph is a topic that has been going around in tech circles for a LONG time, especially among futurists. One notable example is from Terrance McKenna from back in 1993:

A techno-escape forward into a future that looks more like the past than the future because materialism, consumerism, product-fetishism, all of these things will be eliminated and technology will become nanotechnology and disappear from our physical presence.

Terrance was from the old guard of psychedelic drug users who advocated searching for knowledge in constructive use of some psychedelic substances. It’s pretty amazing how his projections about technology are starting to resound in the field today. You can read more about him in Wired.

Pervasive technology will change humanity. There is no doubt about it. And yes, there is still valid concern about whether that change will be positive or negative. As Chris puts it, the verdict is still out.

What we as a people and as a society do with technology, and how we let it affect us depends largely on our own natures. Technology in its essence is an enabler. Powerful technology acts as a magnifying glass for our character. As has been stated before though, our development as individuals and as a society is far outpaced by technology, and technology is poised to display our infancy in highly destructive ways.

The underlying question Chris was asked was “will technology make us more or less human?” I think this is the wrong way to look at the phenomenon. Nothing can make us more or less human. We are by our nature human. We define the term. The real question is, “Will technology force us to reconsider our definition of human?” The answer to this question is definitely yes. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

One thing that technology is already forcing us to do is to take a closer look at ourselves. Genetic engineering and cloning are both excellent examples. They force us to ask questions that are uncomfortable, and envision futures where humanity is removed from a genetic makeup defined by nature and circumstance, to one defined by our own volition. Are we wise enough to engineer ourselves? Can we accurately predict the effects of genetic modification 3 generations from now, let alone 100? Right now? No. But at sometime in the future? Probably. And when we do get to that point, are these new creations, born from our minds rather than the nature of our reproductive cycles, human? What does it mean to be human?

The provence of classical philosophers suddenly takes on urgent new importance. It’s work that we need to start paying attention to. Unless we put a moratorium on technological development, it’s inevitable that we will have to start dealing with these questions in a meaningful way sooner rather than later.