What’s your opinion on technology? Is it something to be feared or embraced, controlled or liberated? Should we lean into technology and shape the world and ourselves as we please? Or should we recognize the error in our ways, and build a society that lives in harmony with nature before it’s too late? Should we even care? Before we can answer any questions, we need to understand what we mean by technology.
When you think of technology, what comes to mind? Silicon valley, smart phones, or maybe AI? When we moderns talk of tech, we mean digital tech. Digital technology is a big subject, but it’s a manageable one. It lives in silicon valley, mega cities, and the minds of ambitious tech bros. It’s something you can be for or against. We can view it as good or evil, but when we discuss tech, we assume it's external to humanity. Something that we could or could not use, and whose ultimate effects are unknown.
As a result our current debates over the virtues and vices of technology miss the big picture. The overwhelming majority technology that we interact with everyday is not digital. Most technology is centuries or millennia old. Clothes are tech. Writing is tech. So is plumbing, fire, republics, roads, agriculture, and capitalism. Our most foundational technologies are far older than the civilization you’re living in.
The digital inventions of the past 60 years are really just a small slice of all the technology we posses. Most tech is old and it isn’t digital. But what is technology?
Here’s a somewhat useful official definition:
Technology- The body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.
Not a bad definition, but I think we can do better.
Technology- A collection of human behaviors, creations, and knowledge applied to achieve human goals.
Whoa. We just opened a big ol’ can-o-worms. This broader definition means culture and language is tech. Capitalism is tech. In its on weird way, even religion is tech. Not to mention every physical thing ever created and used by humans; that’s all tech too. We've had tech since the beginning, and it's omnipresent. This leads us to an interesting question. Can you even be a human without technology?
Of Beavers and Men
Looking at our species's long, hard history, I can’t help but marvel that we’ve even made it this far. Of all the animals, we aren't the strongest, fastest, most long lived, fastest reproducing, toughest, etc. We have no fur, nor natural weapons, we are soft bodied, relatively slow, and need a god awful amount of calories and water. If that wasn't bad enough, we are remarkably stupid and vulnerable for at least the first decade of our lives. To put it mildly, we are incredibly ill suited for surviving on most of the planet, let alone world domination.
How the hell did we get here?
You could perhaps make the claim that our intelligence is what helped us win at evolution, but that claim is unconvincing. Our many siblings in the genus Homo where almost as smart as us and they all died out. Our close cousins the great apes are smarter than almost all other animals. Yet their natural range, population, and success is dwarfed by us.
Intelligence alone is not a good explanation for our survival and success. Instead lets ask what we do better than all other life? What makes us unique? Can you guess? We do tech. We’re natural wielders of technology, and that’s why we dominate the Earth.
You could argue that I'm debating semantics, and that technology is just a byproduct of intelligence, but you'd be wrong. A lot more than intelligence is required to use technology effectively. Here’s just one small example: our use of tools. There’s a fascinating body of research showing that our use of tools shaped the way our bodies evolved.
Think about the last time you used a tool, a phone, or a pen. When you pick up an object, it naturally becomes an extension of your hand. You have an intuitive sense of where it is relative to your surroundings and your body. You can feel how strong or flexible it is, and know how you can manipulate it. When you drive a car, this same process plays out over a machine many times your size.
Even more strangely when a pilot flies a jumbo jet, he feels the same way. He feels the plane; an colossal machine that’s hundreds of feet long, weighs thousands of pounds, and travels at 500 miles per hour. No other animal can do that.
We seem to effortlessly create technology to solve our problems, and we are able to pick up and use technology created by others with little trouble. These strange abilities make sense with a bit of evolutionary history. Our technological aptitude is nestled deep in our biology, and predates humanity itself. It’s a skill that all members of the genus Homo shared, including our most primitive ancestors from over two million years ago.
It seems dear reader, that the evidence is leading us to a starling conclusion. Technology isn’t something that humans do, it's something that humans have. Tech is core human trait. Like beaks are to birds. You can’t be a bird without a beak, and you can't be a human without tech.
To be human is to be a cyborg.
Our modern understanding of what a human is makes this claim difficult to believe. After all, cyborgs are an unnatural creation, a fusion of technology and organic life. They don’t exist in “nature”. But what is natural? Where do you draw the line?
This is the problem with claiming that something is natural or unnatural. It's a false dichotomy. All life on Earth (the biosphere or "nature") is a result of emergent phenomena. Nature can be summed up in a few simple equations.
physics+particles x a really long time=self replicating molecules self replicating molecule x a really long time=evolution evolution x a really long time=nature
A gross simplification to be sure, but simple things can create very complex things if given enough time. Nature is the emergent phenomena that comes from evolution and time. Its products are obviously natural. How could a product of nature be unnatural? Lets flesh this out a bit with an analogy.
Beavers are a product of evolution. Therefore beavers are natural. Beavers build dams. Therefor beaver damns are natural.
Humans are a product of evolution. Therefore humans are natural. Humans build thermonuclear missiles. Therefore thermonuclear missiles are natural.
No matter how you slice it there’s no meaningful difference between these two examples. Any distinction you try to make will end up being totally arbitrary. Living things, are by definition a product of, and part of nature. Anything that living thing does or creates is therefore a natural process. It's part of nature, so it's natural.
For my Luddite readers, don’t let the logic worry you too much. There are still plenty of reasons to debate technology, but its “naturalness” is not one of them. Bitcoin, nuclear power, and space colonies are as natural as beaver damns, birds nests, and chimps using tools.
A Question of Values and Aesthetics
Let us now return to the beginning and answer some questions. How should we as individuals and societies respond to new technology, and should we even care? Lets start with caring about tech.
I think it’s fair to say we’re living in unprecedented times. Technological development is exponential after all. It happens very slowly for a long time, and then incredibly fast. Humans (and our prehuman ancestors) have been building and using tech for untold millennia, but we are now in the "very fast" part of our development. The past one hundred years have seen more changes than the past ten thousand. The 21st century will make the 20th century look boring and primitive. Things are getting pretty wild.
For many different reasons (a subject for another article perhaps) debates about the value, morality, and purpose of technology are raging, and for good reason. We live in transformational times, and the decisions made today will have an out-sized impact on what humanity becomes. Will our civilization reach unimaginable new heights, or crash and burn? Or perhaps muddle along in the middle? The stakes are high, and there'll be many winners and losers, which is a recipe for conflict.
There is of course nothing wrong with spirited debate, but we need to recognize the context. You probably care, and if you don't you might not be thinking about the possibilities. To illustrate the point lets look at three of the many plausible futures of humanity:
- Humanity becomes a green solar punk civilization that dramatically reduces our environmental footprint at the cost of population and ambition. The natural world thrives in harmony with a diminished humanity, but development suffers. This civilization spends most of its resources trying to create utopia on Earth. Priority is placed on preserving the natural world, living in harmony with nature, and respecting life. Animals and nature have a right to exist unmolested, and humanity is not allowed to shape the planet as it sees fit. This civilization reaches space much later (or likely not at all). In the short term things are good, but the probability of extinction grows everyday that this civilization is Earthbound.
- Humanity continues our path towards a hardcore industrial civilization that prioritizes growth and development over biodiversity and the natural world. This civilization reaches the stars centuries earlier than other possible civilizations, and reaps the massive resources available there. While the natural world is damaged early on, a lot of that damage can now be reversed due to the powerful genetic and biological technologies that have been developed. Life and nature is viewed as simple proteins, to be shaped and tinkered with as (trans)humans see fit. A booming population means more people get to exist, life is spread throughout the stars, and the standard of living, lifespan, and opportunities for experience are expanded beyond the wildest dreams of humans from a few centuries ago.
- Humanity becomes a metaverse obsessed civilization, and sacrifices everything else to build a virtual dreamworld. The natural world is simply a source for raw materials, and Earth is turned into a hellscape. Not to worry though! Tech allows the whole civilization to comfortably survive in controlled indoor environments. Citizens spend most of their days in a virtual reality living out their wildest fantasies, while low level AI does most of the work. This civilization is making rapid progress towards transcending biology completely. They plan to achieve immortality and utopia by uploading everyone into massive planet spanning computers. Inside waits a virtual reality far better than the physical one they left behind.
These visions of the future are deliberately extreme, but are more or less plausible depending on your assumptions. No doubt you feel strongly about them. You care.
Now that you have an opinion, and you understand what the future could hold, how do we decide what tech to pursue? While there are many trade-offs, sacrifices, and rewards associated with different futures, none is objectively "better" than the other. Earth has about 800 million years before photosynthesis ends, along with most life. Around the same time our expanding sun will blow away our atmosphere and Earth will become a lifeless rock. Long before then an asteroid, gamma ray burst, nuclear war or other phenomena will wipe out most life on Earth, including humans. Either humanity expands into the stars or it doesn't. Life on Earth will spread out into the galaxy, or die here in its cradle. In a way, the only question we really have to answer is what role we want to play in all this. If we value survival we will have to use quite a lot of new, scary technologies. Technology is the tool we will choose to use or not use to decide the outcome.
To Tech, or Not To Tech?
So what is our path forward? Should we conquer the starts, or stay home and build utopia? Tech is just a tool to help get us there, so what we want will influence what tools we use. This means how we should respond to a given technology is straightforward. We just need to follow two simple steps.
First step. Consider the following three rules.
- Tech is inexorably linked to being human. If there are humans there will be some level of tech. We know this from our history tour earlier in the article. Therefore, the only questions we should ask about tech is if it helps us accomplish our goals. Still a massively broad question, but it’s progress.
- Tech is inherently dangerous. This is an obvious, but extremely over exaggerated observation. Any tech can be used to achieve any end. How dangerous a given technology is considered depends largely on your goals and your ethics. Suffice it to say, there will always be ways that tech can harm your goals or ethics, through both accident and malicious intent. But remember rule one. You can’t get rid of tech. An awareness of danger rarely means we should ditch a tech, it just informs us what reasonable precautions to take.
- Your civilization’s (or species’s) tech level controls your odds of short and long term survival. If your species never advances beyond industrialization, you are doomed. You will eventually be wiped out by natural phenomena (asteroids, super volcanoes, solar flares, ice ages, gamma ray bursts, etc.) Once you industrialize your chances of extinction actually go up. You only have a limited time before nuclear war, or other man made problems wipe you out. Even if you somehow mange to survive without expanding into space, natural phenomena will eventually get you. The only stable long term survival strategy is rapid advancement as soon as you industrialize, culminating in space colonization.
Second step. Locate yourself, take stock, and act.
I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you’re a human, and your civilization has already adopted a massive amount of tech. I’m also going to assume that you're ok with that, since you aren’t out living in a forest and shunning society. (If you don’t like the tech you have but still choose to actively participate in your society, you’re a huge hypocrite. If you hate tech so much I recommend hanging out with the Amish to build some character).
Now observe where your civilization is on the tech tree. If you're reading this blog, you’re way past industrialization, but are probably not on another planet. This means a lot of decisions have already been made for you. There’s no going back to the past. Even if you could convince enough people to join you in halting technological development, sooner or later a more advanced society will come along and crush you. I've already described how there is no long term future on Earth, so unless you're ok with the extinction, you’re going to need to embrace a whole lot of tech.
Now look at the whatever tech you are debating using or adopting. We already know that a lot of tech will be required to survive as a species. Is this one of those technologies? Does it otherwise advance your goals as an individual or civilization? Are the risks manageable? If yes to all then adopt the tech. Easy right?
The Final Problem
If making decisions about new technology was that easy, I wouldn't be writing a blog and we would be on Mars by now. Decisions about the legality, regulation, and use of new technologies are by far the hardest part of the process. While often unnecessary, hand wringing happens because a lot of irrelevant data gets thrown into the decision making process. Sure tech may be part of humanity, but most tech is old, and new tech is a massive threat. For example, people living in religious societies (or societies using ethics originally created by religions) will have big problems with many new technologies. You think evangelical Christians don’t like abortion and transgender people? Just wait till we have transhumanism, artificial wombs, and synthetic life. That knife cuts both ways though. Progressives are unlikely to be happy when you can change your skin color and physical characteristics like a change of clothes. That would destroy a sense of meaning and source of income for millions of university professors, DEI consultants, philosophers, and activists.
These kinds of conflicts of interest run deep, and I'm just scratching the surface. Every new tech from the most mundane to the most world changing, is a threat to someone's meal ticket. As a result, almost all the backlash against new technologies can be traced to a group of people whose livelihoods, identities, core personal beliefs (or all the above) are threatened by it. This small group will dedicate huge amounts resources to convince the general population that the new tech is bad, and needs to be regulated (usually by their cronies). Of course this is rarely true. New technologies have historically raised the standards of living for everyone, and will probably continue to do so. When city sewers started to become a thing, you can bet the latrine cleaners union was furious. In two generations, the tech that "is going to destroy peoples jobs, ruin our communities, and threaten our democracy," will have raised the standard of living, and will be loved and used by almost everyone.
I would normally try and steel man counter arguments, but the internet is full of anti-tech writers that you could read. I would encourage you, dear reader to dig down deep into their motivations. Often you will find that their opposition to tech is not based on objective facts, or the likely outcome of the tech. Many of the most passionate criticisms of a given technology will come from deeply rooted ideology or identity.
A journalist may rail against the dangers of AI, but when you dig a little deeper you find that they’re a committed Marxist, and AI is going to take a sledgehammer to what’s left of poor old Marx’s assumptions. When feminists, social justice warriors, and disability activists disparage life extension or genetic engineering, ask yourself, why? It could be because their hearts are in the right place (and no doubt most of them are), but their ideology is probably playing a bigger roll than you’d hope. When genetic engineering really takes off, ideas of race, ethnicity, disability, and gender will totally irrelevant. That means the thing they’ve dedicated their lives to not only will not matter, but their actions were actively preventing a better world from coming into being. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
Once you get this through your head you can’t stop seeing it everywhere. An old Roman saying that I love is "cui bono", which means "to whom is it a benefit?" I always ask myself this question when looking at a debate, and it is doubly important in tech. Who does it benefit if what this person is saying is true? Who wins if we reject this tech? Follow the questions and see where they lead.
I’m not arrogant enough to tell you what you should think of any given technology, although I certainly have my opinions. All I can (and want) to do is make a case based on evidence and reason. Listen to opposing arguments, but don't get caught up in short term thinking. The Roman empire came and went, its culture, religion, and beliefs died out long ago. But guess what? Sewers, roads, and concrete were useful so they stuck around. In a few thousand years, our debates about colonies on Mars, nuclear power, and genetic engineering will be long forgotten. The societies that adopt useful tech will build on it and prosper, as they always have. Those that choose not to will cease to exist. Our best tech will be used everyday by billions of people who take it for granted. No one will care that we thought it was unnatural, a threat to democracy, or a driver of inequality.
At the end of the day, don’t stress to much about this. After all, to be human is to be a cyborg. You can be sure that technology and humanity will keep on advancing, even if our particular country or culture gets left behind. If the past is any guide, new technologies will bring wonders we can't even imagine right now, and our ancestors won't be able to imagine how we lived. Don't try to fight a core human trait, you'll always lose and will get nothing but grief for your efforts. Instead do what your ancestors did. Use technology to build a better future.