February 22, 2017
Our relationship with technology is unlike the one described in ‘The Giving Tree.’ Rather it is distinguished by many trade-offs with profound implications for the human experience.
The Giving Tree is a well-known children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein and tells about the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. The tree in this story eagerly fulfills the boy’s wishes, even if it means having its branches cut off and its trunk removed. Apart from asking the boy for his company – but not as a precondition for its generosity – the tree does not request anything in return. In the simplicity of The Giving Tree story, the boy’s fulfilled wishes do not create any further consequences for him.
Humanity’s relationship with technology is not a “Giving Tree” story. It is a story that includes a broad range of trade-offs, which for most of our species’ history have been too subtle and too slowly developing for us humans to take much notice of. This began to change with the onset of industrialization.
All the technologies we’ve invented since – our tools, engineered substances, and machines – create many benefits for us. Increased food security, increases in health and longevity, ease and speed of transport, ease and speed of recording and sharing information, or all the material comforts we enjoy are among the main advantages we gain through technology use.
But technology doesn’t just give. Unlike the apple tree, technology always asks for something in return. A quote from the movie Inherit the Wind describes this: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’”
As technology helps us gain increases in food availability, lowers our mortality rates, gives us modern transportation and communication and lets us enjoy material comforts, it is “paid” for with unintended, negative effects like overpopulation and overuse of natural resources, human caused species extinction, environmental pollution and degradation, ever rising energy needs, lifestyle diseases, increased monitoring by governments and corporations, etc.
The amount of trade-offs and unintended effects which modern technological development brings about is still a very new experience for our species and is of far-reaching consequences. A consensus developed regarding unintended effects like those noted above. They are recognized as problematic developments. Yet regarding unintended effects impacting the essence of our humanity there is little awareness.
So far, we humans have seen ourselves to be about more than just technology. That we are technological beings is one aspect of our humanity. Other key aspects of our humanity are, for example, that we are biological, social, cultural, psychological, spiritual beings, and that we are intelligent in more ways than technology creation and use. By intensifying our technology focus, we slowly trade off the role of the other defining human aspects in favor of technology’s role. The closer we align our species’ essence with technology’s essence, the more humanity’s non-technological aspects will fade away.
As more of our basic human resources – like our time and attention, our curiosity and creativity, our ability to analyze or to cooperate – are absorbed by technology’s realities and evolution, the less they are directly available for all our non-technological aspects. This affects the soul of our species. The more of these resources go into technology invention and use, the less they are available for all things not technology.
Taking courtship, sex, and sexual reproduction as essential expressions of our biological, social, and cultural being, we can see how technology is increasingly defining them. We now have social media and dating apps, sex dolls/robots and other ‘toys,’ virtualization of sex through videos/Internet, hormone treatments, fertility drugs, in-vitro fertilization, pre-natal diagnostics, etc.
To be clear, this isn’t primarily about judging – though we should certainly form opinions about a development so crucial for our species. Primarily, this is about making ourselves aware of the dynamics we are unleashing.
The trade-offs and unintended effects of modern means of communication and entertainment can also serve as an example: The benefits of Smartphones, the Internet, TVs and computers, or video games are obvious, which is why they are so alluring to us: ease of communication and information access, and their entertainment value. Yet as we trade off being outdoors and active, allowing downtime for ourselves, or being social in the “real” world with ever more screen time, unintended effects become noticeable: eye health issues like nearsightedness, disrupted sleep-patterns, connection between sedentary lifestyles and sickness, e.g. obesity, cognitive, linguistic or emotional effects, symptoms of addiction, etc.
How do other trade-offs affect our lives? Such as making less things ourselves and letting robots take on those tasks, thinking and observing less ourselves and increasingly letting algorithms (artificial intelligence) do it for us, knowing less of how to grow and raise food and increasingly letting machines, artificial substances and manipulated genes dictate our nutrition, or taking less responsibility for our personal health and increasingly delegating it to pharmaceuticals, medical technologies and procedures. How do such trade-offs affect for instance our self-image and world views, the quality of our social interactions, our values and beliefs, our sense of independence and freedom, or our capacity to make choices and to act?
Just how much we let technology take a hold of and define the broad range of our human aspects is arguably the most existential problem our species ever faced. Do we want humans to become an exclusively technological being, or do we see our other core aspects as an integral part of our journey? This is a colossal question. Most of us probably would – understandably – prefer to ignore it. But we ourselves, through the manner and speed of our technological self-empowerment, are bringing this question ever more forcefully upon us.
The ‘Giving Tree’ view of receiving without having to give something in return is a very unfitting view for our relationship with technology. Especially we in highly technologized societies are urged to give the basic trade-offs of the humanity–technology relationship far more attention. Taking the cultural blind eye we’ve developed towards technology’s nature and turning it into a seeing one must be our first step in addressing this great challenge.
James Heim graduated from the University of Zurich and has worked with a Swiss foundation to bring technology companies to Switzerland. His work in this field, along with his close connection to nature, informed the research for his book Voluntary Enslavement: Technology’s Fast Development Reduces Diversity and Freedom.