Technology and the Decline of the Human
“Man in the course of time has learned to apply wisdom to almost everything except himself.” – Francis Bacon, father of the modern scientific method
I was once told a story by a senior ranking member of an ancient lineage of spiritual adepts (Naga Babas) in India. During his early training, he observed a peculiar phenomenon. A much esteemed senior member of the lineage would die a thousand miles away and within minutes, all of the babas in his local community would know of the news. Though telephones existed in India at the time, they were not so commonplace as in the West and definitely not located in the encampments and ashrams of these aesthetic yogis. Intrigued, he asked his Guru how everyone came to know so quickly. His Guru’s response: “Soul Wire” – a sort of pun based on the notion of Telegraph Wire. It was further explained to me that now-a-days, all the young baba’s have mobile phones and messenger accounts, hence the phenomenon has pretty much disappeared.
“We Replaced Telepathy With Telephony”
This phrase pops up in a variety of forms amongst various spiritual traditions. The idea was that in the distant past, we humans had an innate psychic ability. The story told of the decline of this ability is multi-faceted, but one catalyst is said to be the advent of telegraph and telephone in the mid 19th century. The validity of such claims is beyond our scope here but numerous anecdotes begin to paint an interesting picture that is echoed by a number of more recent and more clearly evident examples.
Honey, what’s your number?
Perhaps the clearest modern example of declining human ability is our memory. Studies such as this one are suggesting that storage and search technologies are causing us to forget even the basic information that makes up our lives. Of course it’s not really that we forget. It’s just that all-pervasive technology makes it no longer necessary to memorise everyone’s phone number, your shopping list, or the date of the Civil War. This isn’t inherently a “bad” thing, but like a muscle, lack of use means it’s less able to serve us when we need it.
This isn’t the first time in history that technology has made a strong memory less necessary and the result was a decline in its ability. Prior to existence of mass literacy, largely caused by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, it was much more common that information was transferred down the generations orally. Students memorised their “textbooks” which often amounted to hundreds of pages. Large works such as the Upanishads and the Vedas are estimated to have been passed down orally for hundreds or thousands of years prior to ever being written. In the 18th century, Guru Gobind Singh of the Sikh tradition is said to have recited from memory the entire 1000+ pages of the Adi Granth after the invading moguls took Amritsar and burned the original.
It’s highly likely that a mere 3–4 generations back, some of your ancestors possessed a shockingly vast catalogue of cultural knowledge in their memory ranging from food preparation to local music to folk medicine. Much of this cultural knowledge has been replaced by corporate influence combined with technological innovation. Take food preparation as an example. The only innovative thing about a box of cake mix is the packaging and the preservative. You can buy the other 2–3 primary ingredients in the same store for a fraction of the price and without the health consequences. What’s really being sold isn’t even convenience. It’s ignorance.
Virtual Reality promises us a life where we can escape into parallel worlds whose elements, and even whose physics we are the masters of. We can fly over landscapes, transport ourselves into exotic places, and partake in sport and adventure beyond our normal abilities.
Perhaps even more exciting is the possibility of new psychological and existential probings. VR experiences can train us to overcome fear of heights and other high-stress scenarios. We can experience what it’s like to live in an altered body, or no body at all and experience the effect on our sense of identity. There are experimenters creating VR experiences where you actually swap bodies with another person and experience, quite literally, what it is like to be in their shoes – a powerful tool of empathetic connection. The possibilities are incredible, but they are not new…
Certain sects of Tibetans Buddhists practice a yoga of dream and sleep. What do they do in these practices? They learn to control the dream state so that they can manifest whatever scenarios they wish (including flying). They use this skill as a kind of existential training ground to engage in experiences that would be impossible in the waking world.
Similarly, in the West, the practice of Lucid Dreaming has been know about for at least the last 1500 years and today is more popular than ever. I can tell you personally that the experience is extraordinary and has a quality of mystery and discovery that, at best, can only simulated by VR environment makers.
But, as with any innate human faculty, it requires practice. Once VR becomes more popular and accessible, will people still be willing to make the effort or will they settle for the easier but degenerate experience?
Perhaps Artificial Intelligence is the final frontier for our human decline – the innovation so all encompassing that we relinquish our very minds to the authority of the seemingly superior machines. It’s said to be the next industrial revolution. This means that in the future every piece of “technology” that you use in your daily life (including your oven, car lights – not just your computer) will be governed by some AI controller.
Leaving the Terminator/Matrix doomsday scenarios aside for a moment, the technology has potentially drastic impact on our own intelligence. There is a notable theory describing the human subconscious as analagous to an AI. Take a typical AI engine used today to name the objects in a photo. It rapidly finds a solution when given a test scenario it has been”trained” to handle, perhaps a photo of a cat. Yet the AI is unable to provide us with the reason for its conclusion. It cannot say “It’s a cat because it has two triangle ears , whiskers…”. The answer is so because the AI’s training data has that correlation. Logical deduction doesn’t factor into it.
Our subconscious minds work similarly. Recent studies show that it is able to give us reliable answers to problems prior to our conscious mind coming to any deductive conclusions. The AI comparison may give us a scientific handle on understanding subconscious intuition better, yet how will things change once AI becomes all pervasive? Why would we bother relying on this enigmatic and underdeveloped “intuition” when AI beats us to the punchline in most everyday scenarios? The inevitable result is a final atrophy of the faculty. Future generations, possessing no empirical evidence for it, will file our present studies under “superstitions of the primitive past”.
This descent may have already begun. Stories from spiritual traditions of the East and the West describe the ability to hone the intuition to a point that crosses well into what we’d call paranormal. Culturally, we either ignore these stories or assign them to the realm of superstition or other forms of misunderstanding by less knowledgable people.
Yet look at our present situation. Science clearly recognises the existence of “intuition”, whatever it is, yet despite it being part of us for a very long time, our modern culture offers little-to-no insight on how it might be developed and used. Already we’ve seem to have lost something significant.
The Dark Future: Convergence of Machines and Humans
There is a notion in the scientific community that by “solving” intelligence and creating Artificial Intelligence, we will prove, once and for all, the Materialism hypothesis, that humans are nothing more than biological machines evolved through natural selection – a chemical coincidence with no deeper significance. The proof of this will be that the AI machines will exceed us in every capacity. More specifically, the domain of operation covered by these machines will be a superset of ours. They will understand and do everything that we do – including all of our art and creativity – and exceed it. They will include and surpass our social complexities improving on our irrational inferiority. In other words, they will demonstrate that there is nothing special whatsoever about being human. As the machines become more human-like, the subtle cries of “I told you so!” will rise from all materialist-atheist encampments.
But is it true? It’s a fair question and I’m not about to deny outright the possibility that we are mere machines with the illusion of something special, the consciousness “X Factor”. But the current trend of things may be headed for a confirmation bias of the most epic and dire kind.
If emerging technologies cause innate, and possibly superior, human faculties to atrophy then the sheer intellectual force behind its creation will eventual prove it’s own hypothesis by creating it’s own reality. If it is true that part of our nature of human beings transcends the biological machine of our bodies and if that part slowly atrophies due to lack of use, then what is left in the vast majority of the population would very well just be the biological machine, and an inferior one at that once AI takes it’s own reigns. Thus the materialist hypothesis would be proven not by truth, but by cutting out the part that disproved the hypothesis, by forcing a broader reality into it’s narrow-vision box and then claiming that that’s all there ever was.
The connection comes to mind of Asperger’s syndrome being linked to tech culture. Put another way, empathy, perhaps a higher faculty of human nature, atrophies. In a hyper-analytical future where empathy is fully lost, social transactions would be structured around a perpetual cost benefit analysis. The concept of an additional innate sense having existed in the past will begin to seem absurd. We’ll have been reduced to mere analytical machines.
The Light Future: More Human than Human
In the spirit of getting to the real truth of the matter of “What, if anything, makes us Human?” I propose we need to accept that the race is on. Instead of creating another dependency on an electronic device, we need to explore and develop that which makes us more than just intellectual machines.
There are many hints of a far more vast human potential just beyond the fringes of our current science. Our modern interest in the ancient meditative arts shows our intuitive understanding of this potential. A musician friend of mine practices viola 7 hours a day. When he looks at a score, he hears the orchestra. How might your perceptions be different if you meditated 7 hours a day? Maybe that’s a bit extreme for now, but perhaps it’s time we dived below the surface level of our simplified appropriations of “yoga” and “mindfulness” and see what we can find.
Another area for consideration: Make creativity a daily human requirement rather than a privileged frivolity. In many tribal cultures the concept of sitting and listening to music – of consuming creativity without being part of its making – is beyond comprehension. And for the record, creativity comes in many different flavours, not just art and music…
However we approach it, we must choose to go beyond pursuits that are based predominantly on cleverness. The AI will be far better than us at crafting clever assemblages from diverse information pools. We must try to find different avenues to explore.
Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread
The nuclear bomb: After seeing the effects of its devastation both Einstein and Oppenheimer later expressed regret over their hands in its development. Oppenheimer spent the remainder of his life “stressing the impact of scientific discoveries on human life”.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is a quote by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism. I often consider this modern version:
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.
It would make sense in a mature, intelligent society that we would consider the impact of technological innovations and weigh them against our collective responsibility and only then decide, from this vantage point of prudence and collective wellbeing, whether or not to pursue them. Unfortunately, our current system has little ability to do this. In fact I would suggest that if our society had a motto, it would be:
“Just because we can, we certainly will!”
Do you know how you catch a monkey? You take a hollow gourd with a long narrow neck and inside of it you place something shiny. The monkey swings by and sees the shiny thing, sticks its hand inside and grabs it – only his fist won’t fit back through the narrow neck! The monkey won’t let go of the seeming treasure and wham!…One net later, you have your monkey!
Perhaps it’s time we considered the possibility that we are being continually seduced by the “pretty, shiny things” while being caught in the net of corporate profits, while being sold a dubious story of how technology will make the world a better place. Technology certainly can make the world a better place, but blind, self-aggrandising ambition most certainly won’t. Nor will the desperate scarcity that most technology startups find themselves in where they are not in any position to consider much more than their own survival let alone that of humanity.
So maybe it’s time to consider a change to our motto. This doesn’t require technology leaders or politicians to lead the way. It can begin, as many good things, right at home, with our very next purchase.
By the way, here is the full version of the quote above by Sir Francis Bacon:
“Man in the course of time has learned to apply wisdom to almost everything except himself. He has taken skill and turned it to breeding better cattle or raising more grain to the acre but he has forgotten in the course of this to turn his skill within himself to the improvement of his own being.”
– Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna