Saturday, September 19, 2015

I am a Luddite ... and it is ok

I often blog here worrying about technological changes, even though I make use of various modern technological offerings.  Yet, at work--when it comes to teaching--I am one of those who even complain that most faculty continue to operate as if we are in some dark ages before the internet.  If you have paid attention to my posts, then you would have understood that I am not opposed to technology itself.  My worry is about how we are not pausing to take stock of how technology and our eager embrace of all things new is rapidly changing the understanding of what it means to be human.

Threading that proverbial needle is difficult.  Most people can't quite seem to understand why I would constantly harp on this issue.  I do that not because of the technology worries but because most people do not seem to consider what it is to be human and how the changes are affecting that understanding.

Today, I get more support for my position in this essay:
Humanity has had such a particular and privileged conception of itself for so long that altering it, as technology must inevitably do, will indeed change the very nature of who we are.
My point, right?

That essay provides a quote that I had no idea about; a quote from an old hero of mine, Leon Trotsky, (whom I ditched a long, long time ago:
To produce a new, “improved version” of man—that is the future task of Communism. Man must see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: “At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.”
Humans as "raw material" is why I hate the modern usage of "Human Resources" in any corporate structure.  I way prefer the old usage of "Personnel."  We humans are not a resource, dammit.  (Though, I did like the way Julian Simon used it when he referred to humans as the Ultimate Resource.)
While contemporary Luddism fixates on the evils of technology, it’s not driven by the threat of technology supplanting or replacing humanity. Rather, Trotsky’s quote reminds us of the possibility that we will come to see ourselves as no different from machines. Technology doesn’t dehumanize us; it’s the knowledge behind it that does. Fighting the machine, then, is fighting a vision of the future in which the human is the machine.
Exactly.  This is what I, too, have been writing about for a long time.
Luddism is not nostalgia for the past.
Again, exactly what I write here and tell students too.  There was a lot more bad than good in the so-called good old days.
For the thinking Luddite, technology becomes a serious threat only to the extent that it threatens to collapse the boundary between human and machine. I think it very unlikely that this boundary will collapse in practice any time soon, despite the predictions of the transhumanists who cheer on the Singularity. These Luddite fears, however, are going to inform every step that we take toward “improving” the human.
 You see why I am all the more at ease in worrying about how technology is altering our understanding of what it means to be human, and how the pace of technological changes might not even give us enough time to process the changes?


Anne in Salem said...

No, I don't see why you are more at ease about worrying about technology and the changes it brings or the lack of time to process the changes. I don't see that we need to spend even a quarter of the time worrying about it as you do. Technology is a tool, nothing more. I don't think technology will change who we are, though it may change how we act and how we react to certain things. Perhaps I am an odd duck, but I am not a slave to technology, as my archaic flip phone and desk top computer illustrate. My car doesn't talk to me, my house can't turn on the lights, and my fingerprints don't open anything. Technology's ability to change us is under our control; don't submit yourself to technology and technology will not take over.

Ramesh said...

Just for once, I'll disagree with Anne and agree with the good Prof (don't think that has happened before !!)

Technology changes are impacting what it means to be human.It has always been so , but in the past, the pace of change was slow enough for humans to adapt. Now the pace is so staggering, that we can barely pause to think about the effects it is having on humanity.

Take the case of medical technology. It is here that I think there is the most issues to worry about. Already technology is enabling us to live longer, but the quality of life in the later years is a big issue we all have to face. Genetics is now starting to alter DNA - firstly it will be to eliminate inherited diseases and it will surely progress to cosmetic and other objectives. The issue of genes from multiple fathers (again the idea is to eliminate an inherited disease) will profoundly affect who we are. As mechanical equipment start to replace organs, life will take different turns. I believe these are profound philosophical issues that face us all. Philosophy takes time to reflect and digest and the most worrying issue is that the pace of advancement of technology is so high that philosophy cannot keep pace.

I agree that gadgets and consumer electronics can be kept within acceptable boundaries, although the good Prof worries about it far more than I do. But in the field of medical technology ......

Sriram Khé said...

The reasons why we differ in reading these tea leaves are:
1. Individuals have very little control over how a new technology can/will be used. Opting out of using Facebook or viagra is an example.
2. But, an individual opting out does not mean that the technological advancement will be stopped. Those technologies are getting smarter by the minute because there are billions who gladly use them.
3. And then there are technologies like in medicine--like gene editing--that can completely change things, whether or not I will ever use it.

Most individuals are not thinking through all these. And meanwhile science and technology is "advancing" by the second, it seems like. Before we know it, in a matter of two generations from now, humans will be unrecognizable--in the ways we think of today as what it means to be human.

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