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OPINIONS

Quoth the Raven

In the span of a single human lifetime, we went from powered flight to landing on the moon. Another lifetime passed and every one of us has in our pockets more computing power than was needed to take humans to the moon and back. Where will technology take us in this lifetime? Will our lives be better, worse or merely different? Will we transcend human frailty or become components of the machine?

In the Silicon Valley, our idea of progress can be summed up by a single word: “innovation.” Here, we believe that there is something wrong with everything in the world and it is only through the power of innovation that we can fix it. Pursuant to this creed, we have built tech companies like Google, which over the course of this coming century will grow to become some of the most powerful conglomerations of human productivity history has ever seen.

Through the combined efforts of these titans of our near future, we will wear smart personal assistants on our wrists, have performance-enhancing implants in our bodies, commute in driverless electric cars, access the Internet anywhere on the planet, work and play with each other through high-fidelity virtual reality and live on material comforts manufactured solely by machines. We will almost certainly see each of those come true in this lifetime. In face of this reality, it seems difficult to deny the deterministic march of technological advancement. What is possible through the laws of physics will be made physical by the will of humankind.

Yet despite the amount of material progress we have evidently made, there is now a growing backlash against technology. There are protests against government surveillance enabled by technology, against the growing wealth and power of the tech elites, against the many ways subtle tech companies manipulate our behaviors for their own benefits. Are these merely the work of a loud minority bloviating its Neo-Luddite thoughts, or do they represent a real growing unease with technology making us less than human?

To answer this question, one must first pick between two opposing sides. The essentialists believe that there are essential qualities to human nature that cannot be changed. For example, some essentialists might believe that an organic body is an essential quality of being human. On the other side, the constructionists argue that human nature is entirely malleable and is merely an accumulation of our experiences and circumstances since birth. By the same train of thought, constructionists might argue that a human brain in an artificial body can still very well remain human.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is well known for his views on the diminishing importance of privacy. It would seem that privacy to him is not an inherent part of what defines us as individuals, but merely an anachronistic preference conditioned by past circumstances. Privacy might have served a useful purpose in the pre-Internet past, but the future is different and the future is open. Personal privacy is therefore not essential, but merely incidental to human well-being. If the circumstances change, as perhaps in the case of the post-Facebook world, then privacy might well be no longer necessary. On this single issue at least, Mr. Zuckerberg, like many of his peers in the industry, is certainly a constructionist.

***

Today, we have a growing propensity to think of the world in software terms – that everything should be redesigned for efficiency and qualified by analytics and A/B testing. Many concepts that once applied exclusively to search engine algorithms are today making their ways into the physical world.

Soylent, a nutritional shake created by a software engineer, aims to provide us with all our daily necessary nutrients in a convenient drinkable form. Its tagline? “Free your body.” Fitbit, a wristband that connects to your phone by Bluetooth, aims to quantify your daily activity to track your calories, sleep and weight. Retail outlets are experimenting with facial recognition and Wi-Fi tracking technology in order to apply the same analytical techniques pioneered by Amazon to real-world shoppers. Online dating aided by statistical matching algorithms has grown from an odd niche to a$2 billion industry.

This growing software-oriented way of thinking about the world is very much compatible with the constructionist’s. For what is “human” but yet another inefficient legacy system that needs a system update? Think of the amount of time that we spend lying in bed unconscious every night, chewing on food, sitting alone on the bus or trying to find love. Let technology make everything quantifiably better.

When all is said and done, we will no doubt be left with a more efficient world, but will its inhabitants still be recognizably human? To a constructionist, the answer is unequivocally yes, because the beings who live in that brave new world will accept their well-oiled transparent society as the new standard-bearer for human civilization. The essentialists might beg to differ.

The truth is that both sides have their merits. While it is hard to accept that we can remain meaningfully human in a Matrix-like dystopian future where we all live in vats and are fed by tubes, it is equally difficult for me to accept that humans should remain as we are now. After all, many of the traits of human society that we consider fundamental today – tolerance, equality, diversity – were alien and unfamiliar not too many generations ago.

Does the celebration of sexual diversity today amongst our generation make us constructionists or essentialists? Has our nature changed over time, or have we merely drawn closer to some platonic ideal of humanness? We all have the figure out the answers to these questions for ourselves if we want to navigate the giant waves of social and technological change that tomorrow brings.

 

Contact Raven Jiang at jxc@stanford.edu.

About Raven Jiang

Raven Jiang '15 is a senior majoring in Computer Science. He grew up in Singapore and continues to use metric units. Having grown up with Asimov and Clarke, he lives in the future more than he does the present. You can contact Raven at jcx@stanford.edu.
  • Rick Martinez

    Raven: What a Serlingesque article…if it weren’t so real and true. It’s a paradox how man first discovered tools, then invented technology, and how ultimately technology has become
    “smarter” than man…until we catch up to it again. And this happens with each new innovation. So, we ask ourselves: “Where are we today? Are we smarter than technology, or is technology smarter than us?”

    The one thing for sure is neither we nor others really know today if technology has become our job…or our nature.