Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Human nature and technology

Technology has always been a part of human nature. Human nature can be defined as “the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans” (human nature). Although it can be hard to delimit what things are considered human nature I can say that technology would definitely be included in the list. In the sense that technology is really just the study of technique it can be traced back before there were humans. Early hominids as well as some primates had the ability to create things such as tools and fire. The study of such techniques and passing down of them would be considered culture and is one of the main things that separates humans from all other organisms. The fact that we can not only create things but also teach them is how technology is rooted to the nature of all humans. Of course technology has grown quite a bit from the days of simply creating fires and the wheel but the same premise remains.

A basic idea is that it is human nature to make things as easy as possible. That is how the technology of today becomes a part of how it would be considered human nature. We create machines that take the work of men. We create vehicles to get to places quicker easier. Even Clifford in The House of Seven Gables who doesn’t like new technologies likes the idea of the railroad as it makes life simpler and thinks it will change human nature. He states “this admirable invention of the railroad — with the vast and inevitable improvements to be looked for, both as to speed and convenience — is destined to do away with those stale ideas of home and fireside, and substitute something better” (Hawthorne, 180). He says this new technology will change how humans are. Instead of staying at home it will become human nature to venture out and visit far way places as it will be quicker and far more convenient than before. The world can become connected due to inventions like the railroad and telegraph.

We can even trace the idea of technology to the brain. The evolution of brain to that of a human has made as a perfect medium for complicated thinking that is involved with the creation and using of technologies. Since the earliest organisms with brains the relative size has increased and the complexity has also increased. This increase is due to natural selection the favors complex thinking. V. Turchin describes this idea by stating:

Human intelligence, as distinct from the intelligence of non-human animals, results from a metasystem transition that allows the organism to control the formation of associations of mental representations, producing imagination, language, goal setting, humor, arts and sciences (Turchin).

Since language is a technology itself and since it is rooted to the function of the brain its clear that technology is a part of human nature. This brain is also an instance where the body is a technology. The brain controls the rest of the body by extremely complex mechanisms with different techniques. Although it occurs naturally the body is extremely complex technology that rivals many of the man-made machines.

There has been a trend of the creation of more and more technologically in a seemingly exponential rate since humans first evolved. This has gotten to a point where humans rely on the technology and couldn’t live without it. We couldn’t even get basic needs such as water and food without the use of complicated technologies. It of course is technology that is to blame for why we couldn’t survive without it. Pollution has led to unsafe water and the creation of cities and such have decreased the amount of wild food sources. We’ve gotten ourselves into a whole that is virtually impossible to get out of.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick the idea of human reliance on technology has come to an extreme. The natural world is completely demolished where all that’s left is a dust and a few animals that are almost sacred. The people wouldn’t even dream of killing one of the animals for food so it must come from some other unnatural source. This attitude is due to the limited natural resources due to the mass technological changes. You could even say human nature has changed to be repulsed by the killing an animal. This is quite different from how the majority of people feel today. Early humans absolutely required meat from animals to survive so the idea of being disgusted by the idea of eating them would be unfathomable. In the scene where Rick is testing Rachel he concludes that she is android because she has no reaction to be served a boiled dog stuffed with rice. This slight reaction to such a thing has now become part of what all humans feel and thus is a change to human nature.

In the book technology has grown so much that it has even become a part of the human. The mood organ is a creation that controls what the people in the feel. The beginning of the text goes through a scenario with Rick and his wife discussing this mood organ and how his wife wants to set it so she’s depressed for six hours of the day. It can control things like the want to wake up, watch TV, etc. This idea is quite profound to someone who’s never heard of such a thing. Our human nature is for our feelings to come from our brain. We can’t use technology to control how we feel, unless of course you count drugs like antidepressants that alter your feelings. The characters in the book are living in a world with completely fabricated emotions. This new trait of humans is just another thing added to the human nature in the novel.

The androids in the novel are seen as a threat to humans and must be demolished. We never know why they are a threat, but the whole book focuses on killing them. The androids are in a sense just human with a robotic brain. The only way you can tell the difference between is to test their bone marrow or do an apathy test which isn’t really conclusive. Although they aren’t physically much different from humans their nature and thinking is much different from ours which is why having them around can be seen as a threat to human nature.

With the idea of things like a nuclear war as seen in the novel you wonder if technology not only threats human nature but human existence as well. The technologies they had before the war made life sustainable, but if a nuclear war were to occur now in the real world I fear that we would not be able to cope and the world could come to an end. So in a way one can say that technology like nuclear weapons threat human existence but I would say that’s not the case. As the saying goes “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It is the humans that are creating the technology so it would be humans that are a threat to humanity. The technology isn’t the threat it’s the people who create and utilize it.

Bill Joy’s article “Why the future doesn’t need us” argues that technology can have the capability to threaten human nature and humanity as a whole as opposed to it simply being humans. He mentions that machines could get to a point that they can make there own decisions. He even makes that bold statement “I many be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species” (Joy, 7). As a major player in the creation of computers his work could potentially lead to supercomputers that are intelligent. When it gets to that point it is no longer in are hands whether or these intelligent computers or robots decide to try to wipe us out. We could of course try to stop it but that may not be possible. If that happens there would be no more human nature as there would be no more humans.

It’s clear that technology and human nature are deeply linked. The fact that we can create and pass down technology is part of what makes us human. Technology has significantly grown over time and we now rely on it which makes the connection even stronger. Since human nature can be defined as our traits in a basic sense it’s easy to see how technology can affect our human nature. The changing of the world through technological change can change how we view things which ultimately changes our human nature. Although some see technology as a threat it’s the humans that create the technology that decide how far to take it.

Work Cited

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1851.

"Human nature." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 15 October 2008.

Joy, Bill. Why the future doesn't need us. 1993. 8 September 2008 .

Turchin, V. Human Thinking. 24 October 1997. 15 October 2008 .

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Your introduction is certainly on an interesting track, but it's also rather vague - your definition of human nature is trivially obvious, and you don't really explain in a clear way why you think technology is fundamental to it.

On the one hand, it's pretty obvious that most people prefer things to be easy for them rather than hard. But is the desire for things to be easy a fundamental part of human nature? It's hard to say, because you didn't really clearly define human nature.

Incorporating the Turchin quote is very interesting. I think this might have been most effective as a *starting* point - as it is, it doesn't fit as well as it could. Would he, for instance, agree that language is a kind of technology, or that the body is itself technology? When you invoke an authority, you want to think these questions through.

If language is itself a technology, is it particularly alarming to think that we couldn't feed ourselves without technology? We've been feeding ourselves through social and therefore, by your definition, technological hunting and gathering for hundreds of thousands of years - so what significance does this claim have?

The androids are *not* humans with a robotic brain, as we discussed in class. Also, it's empathy, not apathy - details matter. Your reading of DADES, in other words, isn't great.

Here's the most fundamental issue here. There is a fundmantal shift in the paper - you move from arguing that language and even our body should be understood *as technology* to suddenly, using Joy and Dick, arguing that we need to be alarmed about the fact that we are becoming technology. But if language itself is technology, should we really be worried about these other details?

You are inconsistent, in other words - you completely change your implicit definition of technology, which means that you don't have a consisent argument through the paper, despite your interesting beginning.