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.