A TERRIBLE SHAME

Technology in its widest sense has shaped mankind’s evolutionary journey.  Our brains, bodies, metabolism, society and culture have co-evolved along with technology.  Ever since our cave dwelling progenitors first picked up a stone to crack open a nut, a bird’s skull, overwhelm an angry predator or a rival in love, mankind has used technology.

 The 4th century BC philosopher Plato railed against a radical new technology in his book Phaedrus.  He was worried that the invention of writing would prevent us using our memories.  “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories.  They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth.  They will be hearers of many things and they will have learnt nothing.”  Today, however, the inability to write even your own name brings upon the individual a terrible shame which many attempt to hide from others. 

 Technological tools proliferate in all cultures, poor and rich alike, with most of us in affluent parts of the world using digital gadgets of some or all kinds.  It would be difficult for us to conduct our daily lives without our smart phones, sat.navs., tablets and laptops.  Technology expands what it means to be human creating things that possess capabilities we thought unique to humans; reason, ethics, learning and intelligence.  Technology today both mirrors us and challenges us.

 Micro-chip implants allow a kind of internal technology that link us to our machines.  Not only do surgical implants keep us alive and moving, but chips inserted into our bodies beneath the skin can enable us to operate remote machinery; to communicate with distant loved ones; or provide information to our homes which ensure a warm welcome every time the computer opens the front door.  

 Why should we resist  outsourcing or integrating with machines, surely that would  make us Luddites?  If we do link with technology can we ensure mankind stays in the driving seat?  If we upgrade our bodies will we stop being human?   What if we discard our bodies but insert our brains into robots will we lose our humanity and become just another cyborg?

 A lot of our illnesses are due to our bodies wearing out, if we didn’t have a physical body we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?  When do we stop being human?  Would we be happy living longer, being integrated with a machine, having enhanced powers and anyhow, do we need more people living longer on this crowded plant?

 We should remember Plato and keep our critical faculties sharp, questioning new developments and valuing what we already have. But for us to move forward in this interconnected new world and continue our evolutionary journey safely, we will need some time apart, un-plugged and on our own.  Plato’s words could just as easily be used today to criticise the widespread use of satellites to navigate when we used to read maps; computer reminders of appointments when we used to write in our diaries; dialling our friends when we used to remember their numbers; sending automated from computer generated lists when we used to empathise with loss or celebration face to face. 

 Not knowing how to use our new devices probably will, some day, also mark us out as deficient and the non upgraded human will probably wish to hide their shame much like those people today who cannot write.  Furthermore what will happen to the humans who don’t upgrade, will ‘ordinary’ humans become something of a sub-species?  Future cyborgs will be far more intelligent than the un-enhanced.  The hybrids will have new ways to communicate, new sensory inputs, they will be superior.  If we want to stay part of the action will we have to upgrade? 

 It seems that we should value what we have, our brains and their un-enhanced capacity to analyse.  Take some time apart.  Reflect honestly.  Adhere to our own moral codes, as some things must remain sacrosanct.  It would be a terrible shame if progress were to pass us by, or hastily welcomed without all our critical faculties fully engaged. If we don’t embrace mankind’s new technological advances it could be a terrible shame. 

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AVATARS

November 2014

Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars.  Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’.  It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment.  In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit.  Does this make Jesus an Avatar?  Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.

Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.

Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.

The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally.  It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.

There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future.  At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’.  So many questions arise from this prospect.  Is it actually desirable?  Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved?  And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?

Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be?  Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now.  Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people.  If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?

Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it?  Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death?  For me the question must be, what is in it for me?  And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point?  I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me.  I will be far gone.