Humanity: Not an Immutable State

What does it mean to be human? What are characteristics of a human being? Is is ones “humaneness” and immutable state?

There is this discussion going around on the internet these days about how technology is changing the way we think. Part of this is based on that attention whoring book written by Zimbardo which is essentially a publicity flame-bait directed at video game playing, porn watching, 18-30 male demographic of internet denizens. Partly it is based on various observations and studies that examine things like “The Google Effect” (people’s tendency not to commit to memory things they can easily look up) or the way mobile technology affects studying habits of the modern youth. There are papers and books being written about it, technology journals get to sensationalize it gaining extra clicks and people are getting worried about it. From what I gleaned, the consensus is that technology is totally fucking up our brains right now and unless we stop we are heading towards some epic cognitive collapse. Of course no one can explain how this collapse is going to come about, and why – people just know that technology is bad because it changes us. It makes us different.

I find all of this really, really dumb. I am not a psychologist, or behavioral and cognitive specialist. I have not done any empirical studies on the subject so I won’t make any scientific claims here. I won’t dispute the findings of all these research projects. Yes, the technology is changing how we think, and how we catalogue and process information. But is that automatically a bad thing? I just don’t buy this immediate assumption that change is a bad thing.

Does it really matter that children being born right now will use their brains in radically different way than their parents? That they will organize, access and catalog data differently? That they will be much more likely to offload the mundane task of “remembering” into silicone chips, instead using their gray matter for more abstract thinking? Why is this bad? Why adopting to the rapidly changing information landscape is harmful?

Is there a plan to halt progress and return to more pastoral, primitive mode of society at some point in the next decade or two? If not, then why are we worried that our children won’t have the slow-motion analog thinking skills that are rapidly becoming irrelevant as we speak. Let me put it this way – it’s like being worried that kids today won’t know how to use a library card catalog, even though most modern libraries don’t actually use card catalogs anymore, but instead use a computer terminal with a web-based search interface. That’s really how I see this entire discussion. Bunch of slow-thinking, analog people scoffing at the new digital generation of infovores who have learned to remember in-silico and freed up their analytical minds allowing them to do higher abstraction.

I see it all the time – a technophobic parent, with mind working at a speed of a glacier complaining that technology is rotting their kids brain. In the meantime their teenage kid is a hactivist, cryptoanarchist, citizen of the world and a programmer. The kid has read, seen and understood more than his/her parents ever even imagined – participated in discussions more complex or abstract than anything the parents can even conceive. But no, technology is bad. It changes how we think, so it must be stopped. It’s kind off pathetic really.

Let me give you an interesting example: back in the ancient times, before we have invented writing all we had was oral tradition. To preserve our myths and histories we had to memorize them. The stories we told were heavily influenced by this – if you read Homeric epics you will notice they are constructed a certain way – they have a certain rhythm, they have mnemonics, frequent alliterations, repetition and various other memorization friendly devices. Most of that stuff faded from our storytelling as soon as we figured out how to write stuff down. Our ancestors figured out how to offload the tedious memorization into other media – stone, parchment, papyrus scrolls and etc. Once they did it, it freed them to tell more complex, abstract stories. It allowed them to construct non-linear narratives, to experiment, to play with the language and push boundaries of how a story can be told. Something like Finnegan’s Wake would be cognitively impossible to be told by an oral tradition bard. It was made possible by the technological leap we made from memorization to recording written word.

Naturally we have lost something in the transition. We have lost most of the memorization skills. I don’t think there are many people in the world right now who can recite Illiad length stories from memory. There might be a few out there who can probably rattle off the ancient epics as a exhibition trick, but no one really does it seriously anymore. It is a lost art, that might be still practiced by select few but which has no real application in the modern world.

Similarly, our stories lost the mutability of the oral epics. Myths and folk stories memorized by bards have always been in flux. Each storyteller could mold them, improve upon them and re-shape them to their personal preference. Over generations these stories would mutate, for better or for worse – but usually tend towards improvement. Once we have written them in stone, they became static – frozen in time, and no longer evolving. They could no longer adapt to the changing language, current events or changing systems of belief like the oral histories did. But in exchange we got a historical snapshot of how the story was back when it was created. It is a troff, but most people will probably agree that we are better off now than we were back then.

Our transition to silicone memory and lookup mentality is a similar leap. We change the way we think, because our world is changing. Our technology is becoming a bigger part of our lives and we are adapting to it. And why shouldn’t we? Why should we do things the way our parents did, when we have tools that do it for us? Why should we cultivate archaic methods of thinking and learning if our pocket phones and hand-held devices are rapidly making these skills redundant if not obsolete. We are at a threshold of a new age – a time when the boundary between man and the machine will become more and more blurred. Our tools make us smarter, faster and more efficient than ever. Why is this bad? Why shouldn’t we evolve? Why shouldn’t we transcend the human condition and see how deep this rabbit hole leads?

My dad thinks he does not need a smart phone. He is wrong of course, but that’s fine. But does the fact that he can’t figure it out, and that he does not see why it is useful make my use of it automatically bad and pathological? Does the fact that I offload a lot of the tedious memorization into a chunk of silicone I carry in my pocket makes me a lesser person?

Change is not always bad. Especially the kind of change that helps us become more than human. For one, I am ready to welcome the singularity with the open arms. Let’s not shackle ourselves to the past. Let’s not let fear of change inhibit us, and prevent us from achieving our full potential. Lets make that leap into the future together.

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11 Responses to Humanity: Not an Immutable State

  1. Hugo Paceli BRAZIL Google Chrome Windows says:

    There is an awesome piece of “Fear of change” by Isaac Asimov. Gotta love that guy. He starts his argument by questioning why we still use the qwerty keyboard, since it is ridiculously difficult to master and in no way thought out. Than he exposes his thoughts on the fear of change, going through evolutional arguments (fear of change is an habit selected by our habitat) and some few sociological remarks. I can’t, for the love of Douglas Adams, remember the name of the essay. Still, it might be easably found on the internet. Talking about Google Effect…@ Hugo Paceli:

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Hugo Paceli:

    Well, there is a DVORAK layout and a lot of people use it. QWERTY is mostly just a standard, and it works fairly well. It is pretty trivial to change it but most people don’t do it because it is pain in the ass to re-learn touch typing on an alternate layout.

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  3. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    I am with you on the topics of change. I love technology and what it does for us. I love that any time I need some obscure fact, all I need is google it. Too bad I don’t think I’ll grt to see some kind of completely new technology in my time but maybe I’m just pessimistic about that :) we have already come far.

    Here are my technology fears:
    1. Dependance on energy supplies – switch off electricity and we’re back in the Stone age only with no survival skills and no memory and no access to data.
    2. Studies on teens that say that their adjustable state of mind is prone to addictions and that’s why computer games are bad for them – they are much more likely to immerse and lose themselves in the game (or form a porn addiction for that matter). I was always dismissing such notions as biased but I’ve read a couple of articles on it and it’s kinda scary.
    3. Abuse of technology that can’t be prevented for the most part, and not just terrorism,
    plain stupidity works as well.

    Other than that I think, technology and bio-tech are our only ways forward.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    1. Right, this is a problem but barring a global catastrophe of some sort, disruption of electricity will only occur locally, and only temporarily. If we design our networks properly and do backups correctly it should not be a huge problem. It will always be annoying and it will always cause inconvenience but that’s about it. If we do have a global collapse of infrastructure, then we are back to the stone age no matter what. The only thing to do is have some contingency plans but there is just no amount of planing and preparation you can do to minimize the damage caused by some planet-wide civilization ending event.

    2. Everything I read about such things was BS. There was an article few years ago about a clinic that was set up in Netherlands to treat teens with “video game addiction”. They shut down after about 6 months of functioning because the psychologists and doctors just could not continue working there in good conscience. They all agreed that not a single patient admitted to their institution was actually suffering from “video game addiction” but rather their excessive gaming was a symptom of some other underlying psychological problems and they would have to refer them out to get actual care. Most of the people who talk about the video game addiction usually are trying to sell books, boost ratings or generate web views. It’s a controversial topic that draws a lot of eyeballs, but not actual clinical think. Then again I am not a doctor. I just play one on TV.

    3. Yep. Technology will be abused. What I’m afraid more than the actual abuse is the knee-jerk reaction from governments trying to over-regulate it. We are seeing it now with governmental agencies having a seizures trying to wrap their heads around Anonymous, trying to censor wikileaks, cracking down on Megaupload, trying to pass laws like SOPA and etc.. The governments will do more damage to the technology than script kiddies, idiots and “cyber terrorists” could ever possibly do. One of my big fears is that US is going to lose the edge in the technology race (already started happening) and will become an irrelevant third world country as less-regulated nations will dominate markets because growth on their turf was not inhibited by idiot laws. What’s even worse is that US will not go down alone, but will drag most of the western world down to the irrelevancy hell with it seeing how we love to export our dumbest laws all around the world.

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  5. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Mostly I agree, but I think I side with your dad regarding “needing” a smart phone. I plan on going back to a “dumb” phone myself when my wife and I are both out of contract.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I’ll miss, and I’ll likely end up still using my old droid or getting some kind of tablet and / or ereader, but I have two big problems with smartphones.

    1) They just aren’t as comfortable / good as actual phones. They’ve come a long way, yes, but if you’re talking for more than five minutes, it’s distinctly less comfortable on a smart phone than on a plain-old, thin-as-hell, less heat-producing, better quality mic & speaker “dumb” phone, at least in my experience. (Being a glasses wearer probably makes some difference here; whether smart or dumb, I find I have to press a phone fairly close to my head, which squeezes my ear against the frame of my glasses, and is noticeably worse with smartphones.)

    2) Pricing. I doubt anyone in the U.S. who pays attention to such things would honestly argue against our phone plans in general, but smart phone plans in particular, being fairly messed up. As soon as I’m contract-free, I don’t see myself going back to contracted phones for quite some time, unless there are major changes. Sure, it’s possible to get a smart phone on one of the contract-free carriers. But you’re saddled with tons of BS-ware as far as I can tell. (Can you realistically root & clean off a phone and have it work with one of the no-contract places? I’ve tried to find out without much luck.) Device selection is pretty horrible, and I really don’t want to use a phone O.S. from three years ago on a “new” phone. There could well be possibilities I’m just not aware of here, but I’m having a difficult time finding them. Sadly, I’m likely to go back to having a separate “dumb” phone and ultra-portable device; it’s inconvenient as hell, but when it’s at least $70/mo. less, without a two-year commitment on a piece of technology that changes drastically on a much quicker cycle…. blech.

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  6. Matthew Weathers UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    And maybe we are becoming better at some things, although it may take many years or centuries to recognize that. James Gleick’s “The Information” tells how the technology of writing allows us to think in ways that pre-literate people don’t. It’s easier to think in abstractions and categories. Here’s a story similar to the one on page 38 of Gleick’s book: From “Death of Reading”

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  7. Morghan Safari Linux says:

    …and then the planet was struck by a massive CME and Luddites inherit the Earth.

    Too bad all the tech savvy folks decided to offload half their brains to silicone.

    I kid, kinda.

    Still, think about the productivity crash when the power is out. Not long ago we would just pull out a lamp/candle/etc. and keep working. Now, even if we’re at home relaxing, we pace around waiting for the internet/cable/satellite to come back on.

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  8. Fal UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    @ StDoodle: In regards to your second point (not as an endorsement of any specific company), I’ve had luck going contract-free with virgin mobile usa. Their smartphone offerings may not be the absolute most cutting-edge, but:
    1) Their pricing seems fairly reasonable compared to contract carriers
    2) I have successfully rooted and wiped all the crap off my moto triumph, replacing the stock install with cyanogen mod 9 alpha. Doing something similar might be a way for you to still use a smartphone, but pay less, be contract free, not be stuck with a 3-year-old OS or have BS-ware on the phone :)

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  9. server_jockey CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Sometime people tend to be too dependent on technology. I remember this story from someone where he was buying a bottle of pop for $1 and a chocolate bar for $1.25. Suddenly the power went out and the two ladies at the back of the counter could not compute the total purchase made plus 10% tax. And the guy was giving them $5 for the lot.

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  10. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Fal wrote:

    @ StDoodle: In regards to your second point (not as an endorsement of any specific company), I’ve had luck going contract-free with virgin mobile usa.

    Thanks! I’ve heard horror stories about Boost and one of the others (re: trying to root and not being able to have the service work anymore) but hadn’t heard anything about VM specifically. I will certainly give them a close look when the time comes.

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