World’s Most Dangerous Idea:  That cultural evolution is always good.

What Technology Wants

Several years ago, I pitched to one or two literary agents a book proposal whose premise was downright dystopian.  Adapting some concepts from cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology, and tossing in what I imagined were a few original ideas of my own, I suggested that modern technological society was moving – and maybe in a meaningful sense evolving, like some kind of superorganism – in a direction that served its own “interests” but almost certainly not that of individuals.No one to whom I showed the proposal was interested.  Then again a couple of years ago, when the Twitter phenomenon arose, I pitched an editor an idea for a magazine feature on how this shortening of web time-scales was starting to resemble what goes on in the brain:  Our neurons sort of “twitter” to each other too.  Was our culture wiring us together, trying to achieve a more efficient, brain-like structure?

That editor was not interested.  Why?  Because the piece wouldn’t have fit that magazine very well.  And I am just a middling science journalist, not some academic and/or pop-sci superstar who can make lots of people pay attention to earth-shatteringly wacky ideas.  Plus, ideas like mine have been around for a while.

I think another strike against me, then and before with the literary agents, was that I was pessimistic about the whole prospect of modern technological evolution.  I came at it as a curmudgeon and a “neo-Luddite,” foreseeing something dark and dystopian – The End, basically – whereas the modern reader apparently wants to see only the bright side of becoming a twittering, post-human node in an optical-fiber-linked planetary brain.

Cheerful old Teilhard de Chardin saw the bright side.  Even Arthur C. Clark was non-judgemental about the prospect of our “Childhood’s End.”  Like Clark, the roboticist and writer Hans Moravec (as I have noted in a previous essay) expressed a sense of evolutionary inevitability about the eradication of humans by technology:  “We have very little choice, if our culture is to remain viable,” he wrote in his 1988 book Mind Children. “Societies and economies are surely as subject to competitive evolutionary processes as are biological organisms.”

And let us not forget Ray Kurzweil, with his paeans to the coming age of post-biological people.

If those guys could find ways to accentuate the positive, why couldn’t I?

I thought of all this today after reading this Robert Wright post in the New York Times, about Kevin Kelly’s forthcoming book, What Technology Wants.

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?

it’s safe to say that [Kelly’s]  upbeat. He writes of technology “stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves” and asks, “How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?”

No doubt some of his critics will think of ways. But the question he’s asking strikes me as the right long-term question: Not so much how do we reconcile ourselves to technology, but how do we reconcile ourselves to — and help shape — the very big thing that technology seems devoted to building?

Several things always bother me about this line of thinking.  One is the strange conceit that in our basically libertarian, post-values society, we still have tools left to “help shape” this very big thing.

Another is the basically religious faith, hinted at here even by Wright, that our increasing wiredness as a “good thing” in and of itself, and never mind the contrary evidence re:  the weakening of real, local communities that has harmed our quality of life in numerous demonstrable ways; and the direct negative effects of electronic media upon our attention-span and mental-health.  Marshal McLuhan, for some reason a sort of patron saint of Wired (which Kelly once edited) was no cheerleader when it came to this stuff; he recognized at the dawn of the TV age that the world was being wired in a way that resembled a tribal gathering, constantly distracted by rumor and terror – socially regressing, in this sense, not progressing.

What the modern apologists for a super-organismic evolution also fail to address adequately is the fact that our expanding global grid of technology did not invent and build itself.  Humans invented and built it, not for high-minded reasons but because they knew that people would pay – one way or another – to use it.  In a world of commerce, faster and cheaper and higher bandwidth communications can bring great advantages.  Additionally, electronic media exploit the human brain’s love of frequent stimulation.  So technology shapes us, but it also basically reflects our natural desires – and for profit’s sake, it has been melding itself to those desires more and more effectively.  Whatever else you think Twitter might be doing for you, it is exploiting your brain’s reward and motivation circuits largely as cocaine or meth would do.

And by the way — shall we now exalt such drugs, the labs where they are made, and their increasingly efficient distribution networks, as signs of a benignly purposeful evolution?   How about pandemic viruses that evolve to exploit weaknesses in the human  immune system?  Should we celebrate their evolution too?

I think that we tend not to see the exploitative, largely amoral purpose behind technological evolution — the purpose of human inventors and entrepreneurs — because collectively we tend to focus too much on the short term.  In the short term, businessmen are happy to sell new things, and consumers are happy to buy them.  More convenience!  Enhanced productivity!  The long-term consequences of these things are too hazy to bother about.  But now it is clear that our very ability to focus on the long-term is being impaired by these technologies — especially media technologies such as the Internet and video games.  The purpose behind this?  Companies simply want to make their media content more addictive.  In so doing, they appear to be blinding us to our own peril.

Unintended and disastrous consequences can emerge from any complex system.  Such a system doesn’t require its own “consciousness” or “purpose.”  It only needs to be poorly regulated.