The Tao of tech
As a species, we are no strangers to augmentation. It was a significant day, when we first picked up that rock for the purposes of doing something, or someone. On that day, it dawned on us that our performance was no longer limited to our own mental and physical attributes.
Since then we have been steadily boosting our performance by augmenting our natural capabilities. Our transition from horse and carriage to ill-fitting exoskeleton (aka a car) only took place a few generations ago. Today many of us have access to all the world’s knowledge, when and where we want it, with the press of a few buttons. What would our ancestors make of seeing people walking along talking animatedly to themselves, rather than to the people nearby?
Such is the nature of technological development and our thirst for greater productivity that the advances we are witnessing today are simply a warmup act for what is to come.
Covid-19 in many respects is the closing ceremony for the industrial era and the opening ceremony to the age of disruption.
We are becoming bionic. In many respects this human-technology convergence started with that rock. Though today we have become highly dependent on our augmentations. Not sure about that? Try leaving your phone and clothes at home the next time you leave for work.
Similarly organisations have become bionic. Faster, smarter and cheaper are driving the relentless adaption of new technologies in the workplace. The pace is such that humans will eventually become the bottleneck to corporate progress.
Society itself is becoming increasingly bionic. Though thankfully the corporate goals of faster and cheaper are not so fully embraced in the public sector. And if anything societies are waking up to the importance of the citizen beyond being an economic unit.
Smart cities, e-health and digital government are all moving us towards an enhanced citizen-experience. Such policy makers should keep in mind that we need to build societies for increasingly bionic citizens.
On top of that, government leaders need to factor in that such bionic citizens will have a lot of free time on their hands to think and play.
It does raise the question as to whether such technological advances are good for humanity. One can build a strong case for either answer. Perhaps the Chinese cultural dualism concept of yin-yang will help us reflect more intelligently on this question? Broadly the cosmos comprises opposing ‘forces’, for example, light and dark or order and disorder. These forces can oppose, enhance or even blend with each other.
Possibly we can find an answer, if we explore some of today’s dualities.
The industrial era saw the notion of work-life balance come into vogue. The need to partition what we had to do to acquire money from what we wanted to do, including spending that money, was seen as important. Given how inhuman industrial era work was, and is, getting a better balance made sense. To remain economically competitive, humans now need to use their cognitive capabilities. This is more natural and fulfilling than staring at a spreadsheet or assembling a sex toy. Thus the emphasis is moving towards work-life integration. Technology in this respect is our saviour. It can take on the drudge work, leaving us to do the fun stuff. At least for now.
A lack of attention could get you killed back on the savanna. Less dramatically, herdsman hypnotised by social media would likely have lost their sheep. Today, missing a business opportunity or misreading a social situation is the consequence of being distracted.
The likelihood of becoming distracted is on the increase. Attention is a currency of the digital age and the likes of Google and Facebook are using casino-inspired technology to monetise yours.
Watching a young family seated at a restaurant each on their individual devices is a sure sign that an extinction event is imminent, or at least a drop down the food chain rankings. Sociality at scale is our species superpower and the tech giants are dismantling this for profit. Technology in this context is not our friend.
Many of us have virtual identities through for example, social media, dating exchanges and gaming. The virtual world, as mentioned, has been optimised for pleasure. It can thus serve as a refuge from the messiness and complexity of reality. Access to these services has never been easier. For those too lazy to extract their phone from their pocket, smartwatches exist. Voice-activated eyewear is just around the corner. Thus there is a risk that we spend more of our lives as virtual avatars, rather than physical beings. Having one or more virtual alter egos even allows us to live out our fantasies. How else can you taunt a president or square up to an MMA professional without fear of retribution?
But too much time online and your body atrophies, unless of course you have a virtual fitness coach, which allows you to train when and where it suits you. Pleasure of course is no bad thing. The fact that the virtual world can offer us ‘precision pleasure’ only serves to enhance the experience. It is when we become addicted to our virtual lives does the problem occur.
Technology in this context is simply another channel and is neither good nor bad.
It is rare that the planet is unified in its focus. Some talk of a post-Covid, new normal or next normal world. It is worth pointing out that it would be better to think in terms of abnormal than to hold your breath until this goes away. We are entering the age of disruption and if anything we will see an acceleration of our journey towards becoming largely digital beings. It will be our escape from the harsh physicality of reality.
This takes us back to the original point I was making about becoming increasingly bionic. As we have seen, technology is playing a major role in the dualities of modern life. But where next in respect of the bionic human? Technology has moved from something we hold to something we wear. It has even become something attached to us (eg. a prosthetic limb) or embedded in us (eg. a pacemaker). Genomics could lead to augmentation at the cellular level. Advance materials might give us turbo-charged tendons and ligaments. Nootropic drugs will boost our cerebral performance. Brain augmentation might well lead to ‘deep thinking as a service’ becoming a ‘pay as you go’ option.
This might sound scary or exhilarating depending on your outlook. Unless it is regulated, it will simply augment the assets of the rich, as only they will be able to afford such augmentations. The wealth chasm between rich and poor will thus widen at an increasing pace. Governments need to start formulating the appropriate policies.
One might ask what the point is of augmenting ourselves. It wasn’t so long ago that people could get lost or would not know the news until a day later.
For much of our time on the planet we have been highly social animals that continuously engaged with the physical environment. Again, if our ancestors were to witness our behaviour today, they would assume that we spend much of our time in a coma.
Technologies, from rocks to software, were initially developed to increase our productivity. Do more in less time. Thus freeing us up to live a more fulfilling life. But many of us are using this freed up time to do more work, rather than spend it with friends and family. One must then ask the question; at what stage do we miss the point of being human.
You are becoming increasingly bionic. We need to ensure that these augmenting technologies boost our humanity, rather than just boost the bottom line of those organisations who create / lever them.