We live in some interesting times.
Digital technologies effortlessly connect us to strangers and loved ones all over the world. Artificial intelligence and automation is becoming smarter and more capable, reducing the need for human labor or even human-to-human interaction. Planet Earth is teetering on crisis – climate change threatening famine, war, natural disasters and some argue, our very extinction. The World Wide Web offers an endless realm of information, input and distractions, consuming our attention, energy and time. Meanwhile, mankind is exploring the solar system in search of alternate planets for habitation. What is the future of humanity and where are we going?
The modern homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago have sure come a long way. We built communities. We discovered fire. We built tools. We are the smartest species on Earth.
Or are we?
As Yuval Harari’s writes in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely. It is easier to manipulate a river by building a dam than it is to predict all the complex consequences this will have for the wider ecological system.”
As our tools become increasingly smarter and more human-like (think: an emotionally intelligent AI robot who cares for our elderly parents), I feel like we are getting dumber (think: our unquestioning reliance on Google Maps) and less human-like (see: Turkle and Pinker‘s research on how technology use is debilitating our skills to empathize and connect authentically with others, leading us to feel lonely and isolated). Disruptive technologies (think: social media) occupy a large portion of our brain’s limited cognitive resources, fragmenting our attention and making us less able to do the deep work needed to be creative or solve anything remotely challenging or important.
How did we get so off track?
It’s not that technology is inherently bad. In fact, I believe technology – when designed in alignment with our core human values – can significantly benefit society and humankind.
Perhaps the real problem is this – we are losing touch with ourselves – who we are, what we care about, why we are here, and what it means to be human. Perhaps this is why in Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he dedicates the entire closing chapter on “Resilience” – the importance of meditation and self-awareness to find meaning in our lives and to gain clarity over the constant noise. While I didn’t agree with everything in Harari’s book, I do agree with this.
As a computer scientist and technology designer; as a human being who is constantly striving to remember and reclaim what’s worthy of my limited energy and time – taking some tech-free time every day to be silent, to be still, with no input but the thoughts and emotions in my head, is in my opinion, the first step towards being present in my own life again. It is in these moments of silence and initial discomfort that I remember I am not my thoughts – I am the sentient being conscious of my thoughts. When I take this time, the fog of constant busyness, productivity, and go-go-go mentality slowly fades. Calm and inner peace inevitably return, like old friends I haven’t seen for a long time. Before I know it, I am connected to myself again.
It is during these times when I’m most able to reach out to people I love, engage in difficult conversations, apologize when I’m wrong, offer empathy to someone who is struggling, or be uninhibitedly joyful, playful or creative on something that absolutely doesn’t matter at all. It is during these times of stillness when I feel the most human – in all my imperfections, failures, struggles, and joys – when I’m most connected to the shared human experience and our common humanity. It’s itchy, uncertain, and uncomfortable – but totally worth it.
As Harari writes: “When biotech merges with infotech, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now, my inaccessible inner realm”.
In a later chapter, he states: “Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you”.
What are your thoughts?
Interested in this topic? Come join us on December 5, 2018 at the Humane Tech Rheinland Meetup in Cologne, Germany to discuss some fascinating questions posed in Harari’s new book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. Details here!