More Challenges from Technology Advances

by on September 2, 2013

Light FantasticFrom any perspective, the world in 2050 is going to be very different from the world of 2013. Since the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, technology has been the primary driver of social change and one that will only accelerate in terms of impact. In the book “Meaning, Being and Transition”, specific mention is made in connection with the likelihood of mass unemployment due to automation, along with the potential of great inequity in wealth and power between social classes. This point was elaborated on in the article “Road to Perdition” (June 24, 2013), and same titled post on The Transitionalist blog, if the current economic and social model were to persist.

Other trends also require our attention; not on the order as those mentioned above, but if not approached in a mature way – meaning a capacity to invoke self-control – they could have serious social consequences. The first pertains to the imbedding of technology into our bodies, allowing our intimate inclusion into the global nervous system we now refer to as the Internet. This is being made possible by the reduction in size and growing power of such devices, the developing sophistication of medical prosthetics, coupled with similar advancements in communication and information technologies that facilitate their incorporation into the human body for the purpose of physical and cognitive enhancement. What we now refer to as the Internet will come to comprise the total of humanity’s collective experience, where each individual could be potentially connected to any other individual. Each individual (with general artificial intelligence machines and any number of other devices) will be connected continuously, making it difficult to tell whether one is recalling information being maintained locally in their brain or whether it has been retrieved from storage elsewhere.

Then there is the issue concerning the integration of digitally realized and physical reality. A portion of documents in this system will form a record of the total sensory experience of events – actual or formed – giving people the ability to live or re-live any experience as if it were happening to them. Combined, such developments would end our reliance on external devices to input and extract information, eventually allowing us to affect the world by thought alone.

If some find these possibilities disturbing, the expected patterns of technological development are consistent with general historical trends. In its broadest sense, technology is an extension of basic human capacities through the application of intelligence motivated to modify circumstances to satisfy needs and desires. Writing, scrolls, books, and computers extend our brain capacity, while mathematics, philosophy, scientific methodology, and computers allowed us to discipline and enhance our intellectual facilities. Telescopes, microscopes, and cameras extend the visual senses, and the muscles by the deployment of animals and machines. When employing fire for the purposes of cooking we assist the stomach and metabolism, when using fire, clothing, and shelter we are seeking to maintain homeostasis. When employing horses and camels, carts, trains, automobiles, and planes we were supplementing our legs, as well as voice and visual communication being augmented by radio, television, and the Internet.

Just as we apply technology in order to modify the physical world, we exercise the same impulse with regard to ourselves. Obvious expressions of this are clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, tattooing, and various forms of body modification. The path towards an immersive physically-rendered reality is an equally long one. Use of drugs and alcohol, religious practices and rituals, the visual arts, novels, radio, television, movies are all means intended to enhance our experience with the physical world or temporarily create altered mental states to experience worlds of the imagination. Less obvious is the application of social technology for the purposes of behavior modification by the practice of customs and traditions, peer group expectations, rules, laws, value structures, etiquette, and religious belief systems.

The concern expressed here is not with the technology itself, it is the circumstance where people, equipped with the emotional and psychological structure of a Neolithic brain, are provided the advanced power of 21st century technology. Until the mid-part of the 20th century the adverse effects on our hunter-gatherer brain was limited by the capacity of the technology of the time to do harm. This changed with the unprecedented destructiveness of the two world wars and the introduction of nuclear weapons, bringing to the forefront doubts whether our capacity for self-control was beginning to be out-paced by our tools. So far, we have not followed our impulses and have avoided nuclear war, thereby contributing to the raising of our collective maturity in the process. Putting the challenge in perspective, however difficult it was at the time, avoiding nuclear war as a growth opportunity provided a low bar because only a few people had the ability to deploy these weapons and the consequences of their use could not be denied. On the other hand, the technology of the 21st century will be widespread, where the mischief committed may be occasionally considered serious, but for the most part persist as a chronic condition. While not powerful enough to threaten the society, this expression of anti-social behavior acts as a parasite, sapping the society’s vitality as it spends resources to protect itself, as well as suffering from the lack of resources that had been lost. If this problem sounds familiar, it should; this is the consequence of the attacks on network security that is now occurring across the globe.

Then how would we respond when we have the capability to build digitally created fantasy worlds and live out our dreams? Again, we only have to look around to identify those who even now feel compelled to live their life in a fantasy, whether through video games or substance abuse. The limited extent people are able to exercise self-control is also reflected in the decline of a population’s general health due to the lack of motivation to exercise and inability to avoid those foods heavy in salt, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. This is not simply a failure of will and is a complicated issue. A major contributor to the quality of our health is due to the marketing power of companies inducing us to make unhealthy choices. This foreshadows more of the challenges we will be facing if the liberal social-economic model persists. There will be strong incentives among content creators in the name of profit, and for some political control, to make the living of a life of dreams desirable. With the experiences being so persuasive, could we resist such an offer?

Yet, all is not lost. Even if our basic brain structure is the same as that of our ancestors, we have grown in our social maturity. The question is, given the accelerating pace of technological advancement, can we change fast enough and to the extent needed to meet future challenges? Protective measures available to us now are limited. We must begin by teaching and exercising the virtues of self-control – particularly among the young – to avoid behaviors that could prove harmful to them and others. This approach is rendered ineffective by the continual exposure to messaging extolling the virtues and benefits of not exercising self-control. The second approach is instituting structural measures such as laws and regulations or deploying protective measures within software and hardware design to frustrate efforts to exploit computer systems for ill use. Once again, we are all too aware such measures alone have limited effectiveness since those motivated to do harm are just as capable as anyone else, with the added advantage of always being one step ahead of any enforcement capacity.

The ultimate solution will be to redesign the structure of the brain, giving us the capability to successfully negotiate future challenges without need of external enforcement. Individuals and groups by their own volition will simply do the right thing. As it now stands, such a measure is beyond any time frame being considered here, but would also be problematic because each of our personality traits have both positive as well as negative potential based on the context of incentives and the inclinations of the individual. Such a problem is for the future to grapple with; however, it indicates approaches we can use to help us in the meantime.

The current framing of human behavior came from the Christian divide between good and evil. This was incorporated into liberal ideology by Thomas Hobbes who saw government as necessary because of man’s evil inclinations; whereas, John Locke viewed the social contact as a way of good people to come together for their mutual benefit. This divergence of perspectives on human actions is what establishes the basic divide between conservatives and liberals through history, so informing – explicitly or implicitly – every issue. Beyond not being helpful in any functional sense, such a division is static, leaving us to view people and their actions to be considered as all bad or all good. This has been shown to be false since people can act in bad or antisocial ways motivated by the lack of other opportunities, perceptions of what they consider to be a greater injustice, or some kinds of physical and mental illness. In regard to moral choices, instead of taking a principled stand and applying it consistently to various situations, as is implied by being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person, recent research has demonstrated significant variation in how moral principles are applied based on the circumstances.

In order to promote social maturity, there needs to be the application of a consistent message extolling the virtues of positive behavior, while support is provided for each individual’s fundamental physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Instead of relying on a system of explicit rules telling us what we should or should not do and punishment if we fail to abide, we need an environment composed of a system of incentives needs to be created in order to reinforce the message with the expressed purpose of relegating formal rules and punishment to a role of reinforcement.

Technology is our creation and we should be enthusiastic about it, being it is an expression of our humanity and for the promise it offers all. At the same time, due to our limitations, we need to be cautious because there is much ill that can or will be made to happen in the course of our journey. As a society, we can no longer afford the self-defeating strategy of promoting the positive virtue of greater inclusion through the lowering of standards and expectations. To meet such challenges, each of us – to the extent of our capabilities – will accept full responsibility for who and what we are, as well as for what we do. In the course of finding what is meaningful in our lives, we also become better people.


Within many references to good and evil is the important message that the boundary between good and evil is not fixed, but flexible and permeable based on a combination of individual personality traits within a specific context. Watch this interesting new video addition to our video library: Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology Of Evil


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