In: What should we be worried about? Ed. John Brockman, New York, Harper, 2014, 306-9
Also online at EDGE The annual question – my response
I don’t mean that someone is going to come and chop our hands off. I mean that we are unwittingly, but eagerly, outsourcing more and more of our manual skills to machines. Our minds are losing touch with our bodies and the world around us, and being absorbed into the evolving technosphere.
To begin with we created machines to do our bidding and to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, but we have failed to notice how quickly that relationship is changing. What began as master and servant is heading for ‘obligate symbiosis’, a state in which neither can survive without the other.
These machines include everything from the high-powered physical machines that build our roads or harvest our crops to the thinking machines in everything from toasters to Internet servers. Engines and cranes very obviously relieve us of heavy manual labour, but in the process they also change the nature of our minds. This is because manual skills are really not just about hands; they are about the way our brains and hands interact. When I learn how to plant potatoes, turn a chair leg, or replace a roof tile, I am not just learning intellectually how far to space the tubers apart or the principles of using a lathe, I am involving my whole body and mind in learning a new skill. This takes time and practice; it changes me gradually into someone who will more easily learn how to grow beans, carve a chair seat or mend the gutters.
We can see the loss of these skills in the obvious fact that fewer people now learn them. How many of us could build a waterproof shelter, make furniture or even grow our own food? These memes still survive, especially in less developed cultures, but the numbers are falling. Just as worrying is changing attitudes. For example, in the British education system, crafts like woodwork and cooking, or trade skills like bricklaying and plumbing, are now tested more by written exams than by what students can actually do. This is meant to raise the status of these subjects, but instead it turns them into purely intellectual knowledge, belittling the important manual skills that take so much practice to acquire. Every time we build a machine to do something that we previously did ourselves, we separate our minds a little further from our hands.
Perhaps less obvious is that the same process is going on as we enthusiastically adopt communications technology. When we began using email it seemed to be a handy replacement for the slow process of sending letters. When we got our first mobile phone it seemed to be just a more convenient way of talking to people. But look at smart phones now. No one can compete in today’s world without using at least some of this technology. Opting out to become ‘self-sufficient’ is even more hopeless than it was in the 1970s when many of us flirted with the idea.
Yet somehow we cling to the notion that because we invented these machines in the first place they are still there for our benefit and we can do what we like with them. This is obviously not true. From a memes’-eye perspective it is the techno-memes and the wonderful machinery that copies, recombines, stores and propagates them that benefit, not us. It is they who are so rapidly evolving while our bodies are hardly changing.
But the way we use them is. Our hands now spend little time making or growing things and a lot of time pressing keys and touching screens. Our brains have hardly changed in size or gross structure but their function has. Our evolved desires for fun, competition, and communication lead us into ever vaster realms of online information and away from the people right next to us. And who are ‘we’? Our selves, too, are changing as they disconnect from our bodies, becoming as much the person who exists on multiple websites and forums as the physical body who acts and interacts right here and now – as much a digitally propagated entity as the man now holding my hand in his.
So what should worry us now is our role in this world. If we are not masters in control of our technology, who or what are we becoming?
Here is a possible analogy. About two billion years ago mitochondria evolved from primitive bacteria by entering into a symbiotic relationship with early eukaryotic cells. Each benefitted the other; so this was not a hostile takeover but a gradual coming together until neither the living cells nor the mitochondria within them could survive without the other. The cells feed and protect the mitochondria; they provide the power. Could our future be heading this way? The analogy implies a world in which humans manage the power supplies to feed an ever-increasing number of inventions in return for more fun, games, information and communications; a world in which we so value the fruits of our machines that we willingly merge both physically and mentally with them.
The prospect looks bleak. The demands of this evolving system are insatiable and the planet’s resources are finite. Our own greed is insatiable and yet its satisfaction does not make us happier. And what if the whole system collapses? Whether it’s climate change, pandemics, or any of the other disaster scenarios we worry about, there might indeed come a time when the banks collapse, the power grids fail, and we can no longer sustain our phones, satellites and Internet servers. What then? Could we turn our key-pressing, screen swiping hands to feeding ourselves? I don’t think so.
What should worry us is that we seem to be worrying more about the possible disasters that might befall us than who we are becoming right now.