For a while now, I've been wanting to get ahold of two or three articles that I'd written for The Secret Lair, a multi-author weblog that folded some time ago. I just recently managed to snatch one of my articles from The Wayback Machine.
Technology, Convergence, and Human Evolution, by Greg Howley
Originally published Wednesday, July 6th, 2011 on The Secret Lair
Over the Fourth of July weekend, my family took a weekend trip to Buffalo and Niagra Falls. My wife had asked me to make sure we had something to listen to for the six hour drive, but on Thursday night I was far more interested in reading “Changes” and playing Beyond Good and Evil HD than in digging in the attic for our audiobook copy of Clash of Kings, so I blew it off, rationalizing that I could grab some podiobooks while on the road using my phone.
You’ve got to take a step back to realize how truly amazing technology like this is. When many of us were kids, cordless phones were nonexistant, televisions were deeper than they were tall, and videocasette recorders were a magical new technology. Now, I find myself travelling at fifty miles per hour while accessing a global network to retrieve a work of fiction that was published worldwide by the author at a near-zero cost. And I’m taking it for granted.
A smartphone is a truly amazing device. Smartphones have subsumed cameras, mp3 players, and GPS units, and may soon replace credit cards and even personal computers. Where once I would have named my home PC as my most important piece of technology, I now find my phone far more essential. And unlike the home PC, my phone is always in my pocket.
Merging with Technology
You may remember news reports from a few years back that spoke of humans and technology merging in the future. In a way, this is just a continuation of something that’s been going on for thousands of years. Long ago, if my village had a potter then I had no need for my own kiln, and if I had access to a cobbler, then I didn’t need to know how to make shoes. Today, we buy products without thinking for a moment about how they’re made. The technologies of language and writing have allowed us to accumulate knowledge and pass it down to successive generations. Today, information is transmitted and stored at unprecedented rates. I believe that the internet was an evolutionary step forward for humanity every bit as important as the advent of the printing press. Tim Berners-Lee is our era’s Johannes Gutenberg.
When you see a person standing in a line at the bagel shop and checking his email, I’d argue that the guy has merged with his technology. Where ever he goes, he has access to all the planet’s knowledge, and can communicate instantly with people anywhere. Over time, as interfaces grow easier to use and more seamless, we may be online every minute of every day without even thinking of it, as depicted in Cory Doctorow’s excellent short story Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
This technology is a double-edged sword. It lets us do amazing things, but once we’ve merged with the technology, losing it becomes as much a handicap as losing any other part of ourselves. What happens once you get used to using a GPS and then one day your battery dies? If you’ve grown entirely reliant on the GPS for directions, it’s as if you’ve broken a leg – you’re crippled in that you don’t know how to get to your destination.
As much as this sounds like a warning of over-reliance on technology, I don’t mean it as such. If we can move forward with a reasonable assurance that the technology won’t be unavailable when we need it, it’s not unreasonable to grow reliant. Today, growing completely reliant on a GPS isn’t a good idea. You can often end up in a situation with no GPS signal, you can forget the GPS at home, batteries can die, or you might find yourself in a new development which hasn’t been added to the map. But if all those issues were somehow nullified, I’d say that it would be completely reasonable to grow 100% reliant on the GPS. And I think that in the future, we’ll become more and more reliant on technology. And it will be okay.
Fyborgs, not Cyborgs
Humans are famously bad at predicting future technological advances. It’s the year 2011 and we haven’t returned to the moon, there are no underwater cities or space elevators, and nobody has flying cars. Cybernetics is another field that may end up as a technological dead end. Despite all the movies that have shown us men with robot arms, telescopic vision, and 2-way radio implants, people are unlikely to accept surgical alteration, especially in an era in which technology advances so quickly that devices are outdated in a year or two.
Instead, humans will elect laser eye surgeries and viagra. In his 2003 book Redesigning Humans, Gregory Stock coins the term “Fyborg”, a portmanteau of “functional” and “cyborg”. He says that pharmaceutical alternatives are preferrable to permanent surgeries, implants, or gene therapies because they can easily keep up with technological advances and any side effects are short-lived. For anyone interested, this article is a fascinating read.