Does technology make us better humans?
It’s not easy to measure humanity’s progress. On the surface, we’re doing well. Larger populations, more wealth, better public health, etc. But these aren’t guaranteed for perpetuity: they’re only relevant if the structures that maintain them stay in place. Structures that are manmade, fallible.
We’re healthy so long as the tech used to maintain our health remains accessible. We’re safe so long as our systems do not go haywire – as was the fear (or hope) of many a survivalist before the turn of the millennium.
This leads into the aspect of human evolution that we most neglect: our connection with our natural self, separate from the structures we’ve adopted.
Making our lives easier does not necessarily make them better. Social media has changed how we socialise and form communities; we’ve increased connection, but at the price of authenticity. By substituting actual community for digital and globalised community, we’ve replaced an essential part of our species – the need to socialise – with a more convenient facsimile. Relying on Facebook etc. might be easier, but it doesn’t constitute a ‘better’ or even equivocal experience.
We’ve become a cybernetic species, and so ingrained are these new forms of communication that they risk eroding our natural forms, as a cyborg forgets what it is to breathe without implants.
There’s a rot beneath technology’s glitter. Humanity as a machine is functioning with maximum efficiency, but somewhere deep in its cogs we’ve degraded our connection with self, who we are and how we perceive and connect with the world around us.
Being human once meant living in close communities, hunting, socialising, breeding. It meant existing in tandem with the earth and nature, a close and intimate relationship that’s foreign to our modern mindset. Now, we view the natural world with scepticism. We build fences around it and place warning signs; we crop and trim its contours until it falls within our definition of safe.
Let’s say some of this is inevitable in a successful society. It’s not practical for us to remain connected with the food we eat – we’re not all farmers. Food is cultivated elsewhere and then shipped to our supermarkets or doorsteps, fulfilling our basic need for sustenance. But does social media fulfil our social need to connect with one another? Or does it merely substitute the connections that are natural with those that are ostensibly the same, but often spiritually hollow.
We don’t need to live in a forest to be closer to our natural self. But we do have to tolerate aspects of life that technology obscures and protects us from – risk, rejection, interpersonal complication. The sophistication of ecommerce means we have little reason to venture into any communal space (i.e. the high street). We haven’t just changed the point of contact, as it was for millennia before, but removed it entirely, allowing it to shift into invisible spaces where we’re as distant strangers connected with string.
The onset of automatic cars only exasperates this. If automation reduces the number of road traffic accidents, or we become more efficient movers, does that improve us as a species? It definitely makes us more dependent and coddled – less able to anticipate risk and tolerate uncertainty.
Automatic cars, as with many of our current pursuits, may be the equivalent of a safe journey with an incorrect destination. Calm seas don’t make good sailors, and neither does convenience and ease necessarily improve who we are.