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5 May 2018

Humans: The solution, or the problem?

Filed under: Transcending Politics — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 3:33 pm

Silicon Valley seems to think that we’re somehow going to compensate for humanity’s faults with digital technologies. I don’t think humans are obsolete. I don’t think humans are the problem, I think humans are the solution.

These words reached my inbox earlier today, as part of a Nesta interview of technology writer Douglas Rushkoff.

The sentiment expressed in these words strikes me as naive – dangerously naive.

Any worldview that ignores the problematic aspects of human nature risks unwittingly enabling the magnification of these flaws, as technology puts ever more power in our hands.

Think of the way that Fox News, with the support of a network of clever social media agitators, has been magnifying many of the uglier human inclinations – resulting in the human calamity of Trumpistan. That’s an example of what can happen if the flaws within humanity aren’t properly handled. It’s an example of twenty first technology making humans problems worse.

Just because we can, correctly, assess humans as having a great deal of positive potential, this doesn’t mean we should become blind to the harmful tendencies that coexist with our favourable tendencies – and which (if we’re not careful) might overwhelm these tendencies.

Here are some examples of our harmful tendencies:

Conflict

  • Abuse of power: we humans are often too ready to exploit the power we temporarily hold, for example in personal relationships with subordinates or colleagues
  • Confirmation bias: we divert our attention from information that would challenge or negate our own pet theories or the commonly accepted paradigms of our culture; we clutch at any convenient justification for ignoring or distorting such information
  • Dysfunctional emotions: we are prone to being dominated by emotional spasms – of anger, self-righteousness, possessiveness, anxiety, despair, etc – to the extent that we are often unable to act on our better judgements
  • Overconfidence: we tend to assess ourselves as having above-average abilities; we also often assume that our core beliefs are more likely to be true than an objective evaluation would suggest
  • In-group preference: we are liable to prejudice in favour of people who seem “like us” (by whatever criteria), and against people who appear to fall outside our group; this drives unnecessary conflict, and can also mean we miss the best opportunities
  • Inertia: we cling onto possessions, habits, and processes that have served us well in the past, and which might conceivably be useful to us at some time in the future, even if these attachments reduce our room for manoeuvre or damage our openness to new experiences
  • Herd mentality: we too readily fall into line with what we perceive our peers are thinking or doing, even though our conscience is telling us that a different path would be better
  • Loss of perspective: we fail to pay attention to matters that should be of long-term importance to us, and instead become dominated by grudges, personal vindictiveness, fads, and other distractions.

Many of these characteristics are likely to have bestowed some evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, in the very different circumstances in which they lived – similar to the way that a sweet tooth made good sense in prehistoric times. These characteristics are far less useful in today’s world, with its vastly increased complexity and connectivity, where individual mistakes can be magnified onto a global scale.

Other characteristics on the list probably never had much direct utility, but they existed as side-effects of yet other character traits that were themselves useful. Evolution was constrained in terms of the character sets it could create; it lacked complete flexibility. However, we humans possess a much greater range of engineering tools. That opens the way for the conscious, thoughtful re-design of our character set.

The project described in the article that caught my attention this morning – the “Team Human” project – needs in my view to be more open to what some in Silicon Valley are proposing (but which the article scorns), namely the use of technology to assist:

  • The strengthening of positive human tendencies
  • The taming of negative human tendencies.

Of course, technology cannot do these things by itself. But it can, very definitely, be part of the solution. Some examples:

  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds can bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistance software, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

And there are some more radical possibilities:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • The use of intelligent assistance software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

What I’m describing here is the vision of transhumanism – the vision that humanity can and should take wise and profound advantage of technology to transcend the damaging limitations and drawbacks imposed by the current circumstances of human nature. As a result, humans will be able to transition, individually and collectively, towards a significantly higher stage of life – a life with much improved quality.

And here’s a formulation from 1990 by the founder of the modern transhumanist movement, philosopher Max More:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Any attempt to “reprogram society to better serve humans” that fails to follow this transhumanist advice – any project that turns its back on the radical transformational potential of science and technology – is leaving itself dangerously underpowered.

In short: the journey to a healthier society inevitably involves transhumanism. Without transhumanism, Team Human isn’t going to make it.

Note: For a fuller examination of the ideas in this blogpost, see my recent new book Transcending Politics, especially Chapter 12,  “Humans and Superhumans” and Chapter 1, “Vision and roadmap”.

Picture source: TheDigitalArtist and JoeTheStoryTeller.

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