Monday 19 October 2020

Is Technology ‘What Makes us Human’?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Technology and human behaviour have historically always been intertwined, defining us as the species we are. Today, technology’s ubiquity means that our lives’ ever-faster turn toward it and its multiplicity of forms have given it stealth-like properties. Increasingly, for many people, technology seems just to happen, and the human agency behind it appears veiled. Yet at the same time, perhaps counterintuitively, what appears to us to happen ‘behind the curtain’ hints that technology is fundamentally rooted in human nature. 

Certainly, there is a delicate affinity between science and technology: the former uncovers how the world happens to be, while the latter helps science to convert those realities into artefacts. As science changes, technologists see opportunities: through invention, design, engineering, and application. This restlessly visionary process is not just incidental, I suggest, but rather is intrinsic to us.


Our species comprises enthusiastic toolmakers. The coupling of science and technology has led to humanity’s rich array of transformative products, from particle accelerators to world-spanning aircraft, to magnetic-resonance imaging devices, to the space-station laboratory and universe-imaging space telescopes. The alliance has brought us gene-editing technologies and bioengineering, robotics driven by artificial intelligence, energy-generating solar panels, and multifunctional ‘smart phones’.


There’s an ‘everywhereness’ of many such devices in the world, reaching into our lives, increasingly creating a one-world community linked by mutual interdependence on many fronts. The role of toolmaker-cum-technologist has become integrated, metaphorically speaking, into our species’ biological motherboard. In this way, technology has becomes the tipping point of globalisation’s irrepressibility.


René Descartes went so far as to profess that science would enable humankind to ‘become the masters and possessors of nature’. An overreach, perhaps — the despoiling of aspects of nature, such as the air, land, and ecosystems at our over-eager hands convinces us of that — but the trend line today points in the direction Descartes declared, just as electric light frees swaths of the world’s population from dependence on daylight.


Technology was supercharged by the science of the Newtonian world, which saw the universe as a machine, and its subsequent vaulting to the world of digits has had obvious magnifying effects. These will next become amplified as the world of machine learning takes center stage. Yet human imagination and creativity have had a powerfully galvanizing influence over the transformation. 


Technology itself is morally impartial, and as such neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy. Despite how ‘clever’ it becomes, for the foreseeable future technology does not yet have agency — or preference of any kind. However, on the horizon, much cleverer, even self-optimising technology might start to exhibit moral partiality. But as to the point about responsibility and accountability, it is how technology is employed, through users, which gives rise to considerations of morality.


A car, for example, is a morally impartial technology. No nefarious intent can be fairly ascribed to either inventor or owner. However, as soon as someone chooses to exercise his agency and drive the car into a crowd with the intent to hurt, he turns the vehicle from its original purpose as an empowering tool for transportation into an empowering weapon of sorts. But no one wags their finger remonstratively at the car.


Technology influences our values and norms, prompting culture to morph — sometimes gradually, other times hurriedly. It’s what defines us, at least in large part, as human beings. At the same time, the incorporation and acceptance of technology is decidedly seductive. Witness the new Digital Revolution. Technology’s sway is hard to discount, and even harder to rebuff, especially once it has established roots deep into culture’s rich subsurface soil. But this sway can also be overstated.


To that last point, despite technology’s ubiquity, it has not entirely pulled the rug from under other values, like those around community, spirituality, integrity, loyalty, respect, leadership, generosity, and accountability, among others. Indeed, technology might be construed as serving as a multiplier of opportunities for development and improvement, empowering individuals, communities, and institutions alike. How the fifteenth-century printing press democratised access to knowledge, became a tool that spurred revolutions, and helped spark the Enlightenment was one instance of this influential effect.

Today, rockets satisfy our impulse to explore space; the anticipated advent of quantum computers promises dramatic advances in machine learning as well as the modeling of natural events and behaviours, unbreakable encryption, and the development of drugs; nanotechnology leads to the creation of revolutionary materials — and all the time the Internet increasingly connects the world in ways once beyond the imagination.


In this manner, there are cascading events that work both ways: human needs and wants drive technology; and technology drives human needs and wants. Technological change thus is a Janus figure with two faces: one looking toward the past, as we figure out what is important and which lessons to apply; and the other looking toward the future, as we innovate. Accordingly, both traditional and new values become expressed, more than just obliquely, by the technology we invent, in a cycle of generation and regeneration.


Despite technology’s occasional fails, few people are really prepared to live unconditionally with nature, strictly on nature’s terms. To do so remains a romanticised vision, worthy of the likes of American idealist Henry David Thoreau. Rather, whether rightly or wrongly, more often we have seen our higher interests to make life yet a bit easier, a bit more palatable. 


Philosopher Martin Heidegger declared, rather dismally, that we are relegated to ‘remain unfree and chained to technology’. But I think his view is an unappreciative, undeservedly dismissive view of technology’s advantages, across domains: agriculture, education, industry, medicine, business, sanitation, transportation, building, entertainment, materials, information, and communication, among others. Domains where considerations like resource sustainability, ethics, and social justice have been key.


For me, in its reach, technology’s pulse has a sociocultural aspect, both shaping and drawing upon social, political, and cultural values. And to get the right balance among those values is a moral, not just a pragmatic, responsibility — one that requires being vigilant in making choices from among alternative priorities and goals. 


In innumerable ways, it is through technology, incubated in science, that civilisation has pushed back against the Hobbesian ‘nastiness and brutishness’ of human existence. That’s the record of history. In meantime, we concede the paradox of complex technology championing a simplified, pleasanter life. And as such, our tool-making impulse toward technological solutions, despite occasional fails, will continue to animate what makes us deeply human.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith, for a panoramic view of technology. My own view is the opposite of Descartes' view, that science (and technology) can make us masters and possessors of nature. In fact the opposite is true. The more we master science and technology, the more we lose control of nature. The dynamic is not widely understood. People are both mystified and terrified by what is happening to the world around us. The philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen blamed ‘the very progress of knowledge itself’. We have developed a kind of knowledge that progressively screens out the world.

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, Thomas raises an ancient view of technology - as a web that entraps us. The term 'techne' in Greek myth was associated with a metal net used by a crippled god - Hephaistos - to trap enemies. At a banquet, Hephaistos drops a horrible metal contraption over some such foe.

Technology is powerful but somehow disgraceful. We are told, for example: "Hera conceives and gives birth to him in anger and then rejects him because he “was weak among the gods, and his foot was shriveled, why it was a disgrace to me, a shame in heaven, so I took him in my own hands and threw him out and he fell into the deep sea.“

Post a Comment