Human beings have developed, and are even born with, an unmatched talent (that the public is aware of) for designing, making, and using tools. Besides having thumbs, our innate talent for technological invention is one of the chief qualities that sets our species apart from others and one of the main reasons we have taken such a hold on the planet and its fate. But if our ability to see the world as raw material—as something we can alter and otherwise manipulate to suit our desires—gives us this dominance, it also entails great risks and consequences.
One such risk is that we come to see ourselves as instruments to be engineered, optimized, and programmed, as if our minds and bodies were nothing more than technologies themselves. Such worries of machines taking the human out of our humanity have, of course, been around as long as machines have been around.
In modern times, thinkers such as Max Weber and Martin Heidegger have described, often with great subtlety, how a narrow view of existence influences our understanding of ourselves, as well as shapes the kind of societies we create. And the risk has never been so apparent as it is today.
Thanks to our ever-present “smart” phones and digital devices, most of us are connected to a powerful computing network sometimes 24 hours-a-day. The companies that control the network are more than eager to gain a stronger purchase on our senses and thoughts via their apps, sites, and services. At the same time, a proliferation of networked objects, machines, and appliances in our homes and workplaces are enmeshing us further within a computerized environment designed to respond automatically to our needs.
We do enjoy many benefits from our increasingly mediated existence, with activities that were once difficult or time-consuming now being easier and requiring less effort and thought. There lies the great risk: losing our independent free-will and the sense of fulfillment and belonging that comes from using our talents and acting with intentionality in the world.
As we transfer our independence and free-will to computers and software, control over our desires and decisions is also ceded over. We begin to give up responsibility for intimate, self-defining assessments and judgments to programmers and the companies that employ them. Already, many people have been conditioned to choose which films to watch, which meals to cook, which news to follow, even which people to date.
Why think when you can just click?
By ceding such choices to outsiders, we unwittingly open ourselves to algorithmic manipulation. Given that the design and workings of algorithms are almost always hidden from us, it can be difficult–if not impossible–to know whether the choices we make actually reflect our own best interests, or those of corporations, governments, and other outside parties. We want to believe that technology strengthens our control over our own lives and circumstances, but when used without any thought or consideration, technology is just as likely to turn us into technological slaves.
Technological momentum is a powerful force that pulls us along mindlessly in its slipstream. Countering that force is possible, but it requires a conscious acceptance of responsibility over how technologies are designed and used. If we don’t accept that responsibility, we risk becoming subservient, zombie-like slaves to the techno-social engineers of Silicon Valley.
The companies, organizations, and institutions that use and design “smart” technology are our leading techno-social engineers, who get their kicks from seducing us with promises of “smart” tools and devices that will seemingly make our lives easier and better. But like all narratives that fall under the guise of “progress,” it isn’t the whole story. As we are collectively led via carrot and a stick toward smart techno-social systems that efficiently govern more and more of our lives, we risk losing our sense of self–our humanity–along the way. We risk becoing increasingly predictable, and worse, programmable, like mere parts in a machine.
In recent decades, with the widespread adoption of computers, the intenet, and “smart” phones, we’ve been able to witness and take part in the dehumanization of society. But the public generally denies such claims, referring to them as conspiracy theories. Therefore, these claims remain untested, tossed aside, and replaced by a rampant enthusiasm for new technologies. Yet, the techno-social engineering of humans exists on an unprecedented scale, growing more pervasive as we embed networked sensors into our public and private spaces, devices, jewelry, and soon, ourselves.
For example, you may think you’ve become more health conscious by wearing an iWatch or “smart” bracelet, measuring your heart rate and how many steps you take a day. But after continuous days of repeatingly checking these and trying to do more each time, what many don’t realize is how obsessive compulsive they’ve become. If you make one last check before bed and see that your step count is less than the previous day’s, falling asleep will become next to impossible until those steps are made. But a compulsive obsession with such trivial things is an infantile disorder when compared to the extreme narcissism, depression, anxiety, lack of communication skills, sociopathy, psychopathy, and schizophrenia that newer technologies can potentially create and/or enhance.
(To Be Continued…)