Is technology making us less human?

6th Aug 2013 | 14:00

Is technology making us less human?

Does relying on technology harm our senses and emotions?

Filtering our senses through machines

Over the past few years, scientists, pundits, and armchair psychologists have started questioning technology's effects on our humanity.

Our fascination with social media (say, using Tumblr for six hours per day), our reliance on GPS to find an urban destination, or even a simple Google search as a replacement for remembering the capital of Nebraska, could be transforming us.

Most technologists reckon we're changing for the better. Our gadgets and gizmos are helping us to connect more with each other, stay alert when we drive, and discover more information.

But a few researchers suggest we are changing for the worse. No, they're not saying that 'the sky is falling' and we ought to panic, but they are worried about our digital transformation. And, they say, this potential dehumanisation might not happen for another 100 years or more.

Sensory dynamism

Here's a new term to consider: sensory dynamism. The concept has to do with our perception. When you look out of a window, you perceive millions of variances - colour, perspective, sound, feeling, and many others. But when you gaze at an iPad, you're sensing just a few variables - and with email and SMS, you may barely be using your senses. That could pose a problem in the long run for future human development.

Neema Moraveji is the director of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University. He says sensory dynamism can be a problem when it comes to an over-reliance on computer technology. (To address the concern, his team is working on adding more sensory stimulus to gadgets, computer screens, and other devices.)

Moraveji says technology can sometimes cloud our sensory judgement. We see only factual and textual information instead of an array of human emotions.

"Technology makes us less human when we believe life is a rat race to be won - a zero-sum mentality - and when we are isolated and individual rather than interconnected, and primarily competitive rather than primarily collaborative," he says.

"I describe the brain as an organ whose job it is to learn through its physiochemical and cognitive senses. Without sufficient dynamism, the brain becomes focused on particular senses and inputs that are not representative of the natural world."

Ironically, one of the answers may lie in videogame technology. More than the flat graphics of a phone displaying text, games at least mimic the sensations of sound, light, and emotion in a more realistic virtual world. Game technology is also advancing - some day, we might 'smell' a rainforest or 'touch' an alien skin.

Implantable electronics

Strictly speaking, implantable electronics make us less human: we become, in some percentage, machine. Of course, the first cardiac pacemakers were invented back in the 50s - saying someone is 'less human' if they have a pacemaker is a bit harsh.

Yet some of us might have an implant to enhance vision or read text messages directly into the synapse, or might use a bio-skeleton for enhanced strength. In 100 years, embedded technology could replace more and more of our human anatomy.

Dr Bridget Duffy is the chief medical officer at Vocera, a company that makes a wireless communicator for use in hospitals. She talks of an '80-20' rule in the health profession. In some cases, only 20% of healing occurs because of a drug treatment or surgery, while 80% of the success depends on patient-doctor interaction. If a 'human being' transforms into something that's more electronic than biological, there is a concern that a future society will lose the distinctions of emotional connection.

Google

"There is something about hope, communication, and trust that improves the outcome," Duffy says. "You can focus on a good technical outcome, but there has to be the other component. When you know a loved one who has faced mortality and a life-threatening illness, the implant is not enough - there is something about physical contact."

Duffy explains that in many surgery rooms, it's not uncommon for the entire staff to touch and speak directly to the patient. But it's already possible, she says, for a doctor to perform a procedure entirely from "behind the glass" without ever meeting a patient, robotically controlling all of the instruments.

Following this path, could a future total reliance on medical technology make us less human? Patients might even, for instance, be able perform home surgeries, but the 'less human' argument hints that this could result in fewer successful surgeries and affect our long-term health as a society. Duffy says the 80-20 rule might even be applied across all technology - we should have real human contact 80% of the time and restrict virtual experience to the remaining 20%.

Search dependence

Search has put a world of information at our fingertips. We can search for information about the latest Syrian army attacks, or find out about Himalayan fruit flies. In 2010, however, Nicholas Carr wrote a seminal book on whether search is making us stupid. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains recounts how our search dependence could have ill effects in society when we lose our ability to self-reason.

Search tech has evolved dramatically over the last 15 years - no one knows the role it may have in our lives in another 50 or 100. Yet even Matt Wallaert, a behavioural scientist at Bing, questions whether it is good to become wholly dependent on search. He says researchers suspect the human brain needs serendipitous discovery. There's a famous example of this. Look closely at this image until you see the 'hidden' object. Wallaert says our brains receive a pleasure response from resolving the puzzle.

"When you search for 'when was George Harrison born' does that prevent us from looking into our brain and realising the answer?" asks Wallaert, somewhat rhetorically. "When we scratch out that act, does it deprive us of that small burst of pleasure?"

The question is whether a greater and greater dependence on search means we are changing for the worse. Some search is good; all search could be detrimental.

Of course, there are a counter-arguments. After all, when we search for facts on Bing or Google, we are gaining knowledge and, potentially, increasing our intelligence. Wallaert, for one, isn't concerned about the short-term implications, and no expert we ask suggests we should not use these tools. What is disconcerting, though, is the idea that in some far-distant society we may not retain as much tacit knowledge, relying instead on what computers tell us to be true.

Are we losing the emotion from communication?

Social networking

Computer addiction is a real concern. For some people, it is not uncommon to browse Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr for hours and hours at a time. We may not take the breaks necessary to free our brains from the LCD screen and static data.

Wallaert points out that most social networking sites are highly curated. We see a microcosm of reality, and - in Facebook's case at least - it's often a chronicle of happy moments. He says constant exposure to this subset can lead to social comparisons: 'my microcosm of the world is not as fulfilling as your microcosm'.

There's also the issue of mindless clicking. We're mesmerised by the flicker of an LCD and browsing countless blogs is commonplace. Visual networking, a phenomenon popularised by Pinterest and Instagram, cuts out even the textual information. Yet, the experts say this repetitive browsing could have a detrimental long-term effect.

Visual networking

"You become less human because you're constantly isolated and with no emotional feedback, and you may start to feel depressed," says Dr Cindy Bunin, a professor who teaches parents about the effects of technology.

"Static feedback is incredibly unhealthy because your life becomes totally focused on something that gives only momentary gratification. Human beings need real physical social interaction to survive."

Small changes do help - Chrome extension 20 Cubed, for instance, can give your eyes some respite. As you browse, a pop-up reminds you to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes.

Texting and email

Texting is an immediate form of communication. We can get right to the point. At a recent conference session, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who wrote the book Alone Together, spoke about how texting can have a dehumanising effect.

We're wresting control away from the other person and removing a critical feedback loop in a conversation where we receive a reaction (both visual and auditory). Turkle argues that text and email should be used mostly for factual exchanges.

Duffy, meanwhile, offers an example from a medical context. A patient record contains just the facts of an illness. Yet, doctors have learned not to rely only on those facts. There is a 'narrative' to a medical treatment that must include voice and physical contact.

She says a doctor often learns about the seriousness of an illness not just by the blood test results but when he or she looks into the eyes of the patient and see the pain or worry.

"Technology can hinder us by over-representing analytical skills and textual communication rather than eye contact, physical contact, silence, reflection, and rich and deep one-on-one communication," says Moraveji.

One answer is to let technology serve as the tool it was meant to be. He says it's fine for quick discussions. But nothing beats an in-person meeting to resolve conflicts, discuss strategy, or just get to know someone better.

Again, videogames are leading the way here. They have promoted more of a team-oriented approach - a shared experience. In the upcoming Xbox One console, you can play a game and have a Skype video chat at the same time.

Geolocation

One final concern has to do with geolocation. We've all heard the stories of the driver who mistakenly crashes into a riverbank because the GPS said to make a left turn. Like the problem of search dependence, relying on a GPS for all wayfinding results in us lacking spatial cognisance - a voice guides us rather than our intuition or knowledge.

Moraveji says relying on technological assists for geolocation could, in the long-run, be detrimental to our human development. "They essentially leave the brain under-representing major components of the natural world - in particular navigation and memory of the physical environment and interpersonal communication or self-reliant exploration. These are components of the natural world that leave the brain-body balanced and whole."

Dr Gopal Chopra is a New York-based neurosurgeon who, somewhat ironically, developed a service called PingMD that alerts medical workers by text. He says there is a clear purpose - such as that served by his startup - for technology. Yet, in-person contact, visual communication, and even a phone call stimulates the brain in unpredictable ways. Technology has to be offset by activity in the natural world.

"Our brain is geared in two basic ways: reflex and higher cognition," he says. "When we listen to instructions we are kicking in reflex, and higher cognition only comes to play when there is something in the environment such as a red light that requires interpretation and an appropriate response. So much of the instructioning going on with GPS uses our response to command functionality that we don't see the landmarks in the real world!"

The GPS is helpful, but also means we are missing out on the journey of discovery. "We are not exposing or exercising our brain in a way to enjoy an experience; we enjoy the accomplishment of the goal of reaching our destination - hence missing out on the journey. Much of our character, creativity and moral fabric is built on the journey."

Ultimately, tech is helping - society is improving overall. The experts are not decrying the value of tech advancements. At the same time, we should all be more aware of the determinants, especially when it comes to over-use of technology.

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