As far back as the Stone Age, Man has sought to understand the world around him and make it inhabitable. Initially attributing natural phenomena and occurrences to the actions of gods and the spiritual, we eventually looked to science to explain the intricacies of our lives and ultimately make it easier through the application of technology. Thus from our most recent history stretching as far back as the 18th century and coinciding with the industrial revolution in England, technological advancement has been the foundation of modern economic growth and has played a vital role in powering the engines of increasingly globalized states.
Since then, we have gone on to harness the power of technology across two major “industrial revolutions” – the technological and computer – in order to create devices, products and services that have enabled us exploit natural resources and optimize our human and earthly experience. Technology, also enabled us develop highly standardized and specialized economic systems characterized by more efficiency and effectiveness and which, generated more output, drove increased consumption and created more prosperity and wealth. Apart from the economic benefits accruing from the application of technology, technology itself has become a bedrock of modern life, as countries and individuals became increasingly digitized. Mundane tasks typically executed using physical exertion of strength or through painstaking time-consuming processes are now literally done with the “touch of a button”. An example is written two-way communication, which evolved from letters sent via hawks and pigeons (depending on what side of the global geographic divide a person resided in), and are now typed and sent in real time with lighting fast response rates. Everywhere around us, we can see the manifestation of this in the form of cars, mobile handheld computers, smart watches, wireless headsets etc. which we all rely on in one way or the other to accomplish tasks and to live seamless lives altogether. The benefits of the integration of technology into our daily lives are innumerable and are apparent that there is almost no contesting this. We have become ever more connected and in-sync, more productive and in many ways, smarter. Technology has also helped us better the quality of our lives through improved healthcare, medical facilities, devices and disease combating drugs.
The Current Status Quo
While there have undoubtedly been widespread benefits arising from technological advancement and its application across several sectors and industries, we cannot but recognize the costs and attendant negative effects generated by this process. Apart from the more obvious issues such as environmental damages caused by extracting metals and rare earth minerals (essential inputs in devices such as processors and computer chips), cancer causing radiation emitted by various devices and pollution from increased energy use and carbon emission amongst others, there have been some more salient human centered effects. One of these is the increased disconnectedness arising from our interconnectedness; several researchers have noted the ways in which being plugged in has reduced people’s awareness to their environments and has made them more distant from people within close proximity. Professor Larry Rosen of California State University one of the proponents of this view, stated that proliferation of social technologies and computing devices have made us connect more virtually and less in real life. This has led to many individuals admitting to having increased feelings of loneliness and related unhappiness reinforced by this notion of not having real life connections. It is not hard to recall a mental image of groups of friends gathered around a table for dinner but all looking into their phones connecting with “virtual” people while failing to enjoy physical time with their friends in “the here and now”. Furthermore, our brain and body chemistries are experiencing changes from the increased use of digital devices and internet services; Andi Horvath notes that our attention, focus, sleep cycles and memories have all been affected by increased use of technology. His research shows that the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and short-term memory – is affected by increased use of digital devices.
This issue has also been identified as a medical condition in several individuals – known as “Digital Dementia” – with people diagnosed claiming they have experienced decrease in brain activity and loss in short term memory, similar to patients suffering from dementia. All this points to one major issue, we are all increasingly becoming addicted to our digital devices and invariably becoming “slaves” to technology. If we can also agree that social interaction is at the core of our humanity and technology has contributed to its deterioration, we can thus conclude that this is making us lose some of our humanity and our freedom to be human. Human beings are becoming in a manner of speaking, zombies of some sorts plugged into their screens with drool dripping from their mouths, unable to pull away.
Although this may seem extreme and resting in the realms of science fiction, I believe that taking a closer look at the various dimensions of freedom, we can determine if this presents a valid concern to humanity. Studying the ideas of the premier philosophers who addressed the issue of freedom, we can see three very common threads with respect to the dimensions of freedom. Freedom is seen as the ability of man to express his free will unencumbered, make choices and decisions without constraint and live without being subject to another. Hence, if we are experiencing depletion of our willpower arising from with the endless digital propositioning, finding it difficult to make decisions without the aid of our digital devices and the information they provide, and are dependent on our digital devices, it is safe to say that our most basic freedom – to be human – is under attack by technology.
A Future Evolutionary Scenario
Having established that technology in many ways has constrained our being and existence as independent humans, it is important to ask the question “What might the future look like?”. After reviewing and analyzing the works, views and opinions of various researchers, thought leaders and experts on this issue, I present below a scenario of a possible human-machine evolutionary pathway. This simulation shows how interactions between man and technology (machine) at each of the stages of a possible evolution will affect our “freedom to be human”:
- Stage one – Technology as a crutch: this stage, the by-product of the third industrial (or digital) revolution is where humanity is currently at and it is characterized by increasing dependence on our devices as they feature more in our everyday lives. Technology and the devices born from it have become somewhat of a crutch, which we need to move, communicate, navigate, be entertained and in many ways survive. This is also the first step in losing our freedom to be human; particularly, people are trading up their time to be more connected and for a chance to use their devices.
- Stage two – Technology as an organ: this is the next step, which I believe the human machine interaction will take and it will be born out of the fourth industrial revolution, especially the interaction between 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Robotics, Virtual and Augmented Reality. Here, we will see more emphasis on and a renewed drive towards synergy between man and machine (what some call cybernetics), and use of technology to enhance our “humanity”. Although not here yet, this has already been depicted in movies such as “Ghost in the Shell” and the latest Fast and Furious spin-off “Hobbs and Shaw”, where both key protagonists and antagonists were mechanically upgraded giving them superhuman abilities. In this stage, the line between man and machine will be severely blurred; several questions we need to consider as this comes upon us are: “What does it mean to be human?”, “is our reality real, or just a figment being projected by audio-visual implants?”, “Are our decisions entirely ours, or subject to our mechanical selves, which we might have no control over?”.
- Stage three – Technology as master: This is the last and final step in this evolutionary scenario, a point where machines achieve the level of sentience and invariably take-over from humans. Several individuals have warned about this – notable of which is Elon Musk[footnoteRef:8] – and this was depicted in the groundbreaking movie, the Matrix It is here many people believe that machines will eventually enslave the entire human populations and we ultimately lose our freedom.
The Way Forward – Creating a Utopian Future
At this point, a person reading this may be tempted to think that it is all doom and gloom and there is no salvation in sight. I however believe that with a globally coordinated and proactive response to these issues, we can stay on top of it all and control the outcomes. I thus propose below a set of recommendations and action steps relating to each of the simulated evolutionary phases that can be taken to ensure we can harness the good and stave of the bad:
- Designate technology free zones
- Dedicate more time to human centered interaction
One major way to deal with the obsession and addiction to digital devices is to create technology free safe spaces where individuals can play, live and work. Close to this, people should emphasize and dedicate more time to connecting and interacting with “real” humans, especially for children and young adults.
Games and fun activities can be created for people to participate in; this would help to not only generate fun but to also challenge people’s minds, thus providing constructive alternatives to mindless digital surfing.
- Local communities and townships
Increased regulatory oversight by governments on AI and human-machine integration technologies
According to Mahesh Ramachandran, a partner at Pontaq, “Innovation always precedes regulation”. However, if we are to stay ahead of the curve and avoid the negative effects of the man-machine synergy, we need governments and their agencies to pay more attention to regulating such technologies.
Governments and multilateral organizations should dedicate more time, and resources to overseeing technologies such as implants in order to ensure that potential applications that may be harmful can be prevented.
- National Governments and Agencies
- Multilateral organizations (e.g. UN)
- Increases regulation and oversight
- Inserting a “kill-switch” within certain devices
Even though government oversight may be effective in this phase, the one bold move that can be implemented is to insert a backdoor or kill switch within certain technologies and devices that gives humanity an opportunity to disable them in the event that they spiral out of control.
- National Governments
- Private technology companies
I would agree with many people, especially those who advocate for smaller governments that regulation can create some inefficiency in resource allocation and functioning of markets. However, ensuring the continued survival and thriving of humanity requires radical and unorthodox action; in addition, if we believe that technology was made for man, and not man for technology, this course of action is then worth considering.
Implementing this framework of recommendations will give us an opportunity to enjoy the current and future benefits accruing from technological advancement. We would be able to create a future where there is harmonious coexistence between man and technology and man even harnesses it for the general good and advancement of our shared experience. It would also ensure that alongside this, humanity does not become subject to our creation and invariably lose our freedom to express and explore our beings and our most basic freedoms to choose and express will devoid of any external encumbrance.
- Calonico, Scott. “Is Technology Making Us Less Human? – Kumulos.” Kumulos, August 7, 2013. https://www.kumulos.com/2013/08/07/is-technology-making-us-less-human/.
- Dowd, Maureen. “Elon Musk’s Billion-Dollar Crusade to Stop the A.I. Apocalypse.” The Hive. Vanity Fair, March 26, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dollar-crusade-to-stop-ai-space-x.
- https://www.the-philosophy.com/author/thephilo. “Freedom in Philosophy: Quotes, Concepts, Authors.” Philosophy & Philosophers, May 27, 2019. https://www.the-philosophy.com/freedom-in-philosophy.
- Manyika, James, and Charles Roxburgh. “The Great Transformer: The Impact of the Internet on Economic Growth and Prosperity.” Mckinsey Global Institute, 2011. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Technology%20Media%20and%20Telecommunications/High%20Tech/Our%20Insights/The%20great%20transformer/MGI_Impact_of_Internet_on_economic_growth.ashx.
- Thrive Global. “Disconnection in a Connected World – Thrive Global.” Thriveglobal.com, October 22, 2018. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/disconnection-in-a-connected-world-2/.
- tkm5196. “Is Technology Really Making Us Less Social? | SiOWfa15: Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy.” Psu.edu, September 16, 2015. https://sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/09/16/is-technology-really-making-us-less-social/.
- University of Melbourne. “How Does Technology Affect Our Brains? | VOICE.” Archive-it.org, June 13, 2015. http://wayback.archive-it.org/org-197/20160102020402/http://voice.unimelb.edu.au/volume-11/number-6/how-does-technology-affect-our-brains.
- Venkatraman, Hemamalini. “Innovation Precedes Regulation: Pontaq Partner.” dtNext.in, October 21, 2019. https://www.dtnext.in/News/TopNews/2019/10/21015944/1193176/Innovation-precedes-regulation-Pontaq-Partner.vpf.