Are we externalizing ourselves out of existence?: a speculation on the future of humankind.
Imagine, if you will, the following image. A flat screen computer monitor, two speakers on either side of the monitor, a Skype camera eye on top of the monitor, a keyboard in front of the monitor, and a desktop computer somewhere in the vicinity. Or perhaps the computer is a laptop with all these components combined into one. All this is connected to an external device that is, in turn, connected to the World Wide Web.
Now imagine the computer monitor has the shape of a human face, the speakers have been integrated into the monitor and have the appearance of ears, the Skype camera eye is doubled and has been integrated into the computer monitor; the keyboard, likewise, has been melded into the human facelike monitor and appears as a mouth with the keys as so many teeth. The CPU has similarly been incorporated into the human face-like monitor and has become transparent to the onlooker, much like the Apple-designed hard drive/monitor. Further, this technological device is equipped with an enormous memory and random access capacity. It is also linked to a worldwide, next generation Internet.
Now, take this artificial intelligence device and put it on a future generation robotic, human-like frame that makes it highly mobile. What do we have? The benign android DATA from "Star Trek: The Next Generation"? Or, the very human robots from Isaac Asimov's I-Robot series? Or do we have any number of malevolent machines from "The Matrix" or "The Terminator"?
Although early prosthetics date back to at least three-hundred B.C., in the second half of the twentieth century and certainly into the twenty-first century, science, medicine, and technology have teamed up to accelerate the process of replacing human body parts in ways previous generations could only imagine, such as the mechanical heart, hearing aids, parts of the eye, hip replacements, leg replacements, even skin, speech, and full face transplants. Computer technology has even given "voice" to physicist Stephen Hawking. Human replacement parts are even being "grown" in the laboratory. Technologies, including computer technology, enable paraplegics and quadriplegics to live more normal lives. The list of prosthetics and human replacement parts lengthens with each passing year.
Further, humankind is not only inventing ways to replace or enhance human parts but also essentially finding ways to externalize and extend our senses, in the sense that Marshall McLuhan articulated in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. These "sensory" technologies imitate and extend some physical aspect of the human body. This imitation and extension of physical aspects of the human body appears to be an inexorable human activity.
The evolution of television is a case in point. Early television sets were big, but the screens were very small. Content was in black and white. In time, content was delivered in "living color" and screens got larger. Today screens are not only larger, they are flatter and no longer have to sit on the floor or in an entertainment center: they can be hung on a wall. Programming is broadcast digitally and in high definition, the sound is in stereo, and with the attachment of rear speakers, one can experience surround sound at home. Even closer to the present, television programming is beginning to be broadcast in 3D. It is a matter of time before the television set becomes even more transparent and we watch programming holographi-cally, as in Episode Four of "Star Wars." Is this not a replication of how the human eyes and ears see and hear?
Also, videoconferencing allows for two or more locations to interact via two-way video and audio transmissions simultaneously (e.g., Skype). The people with whom you are speaking and seeing are all but literally in the room with you. Again, all this is an imitation and externalization of how the human eye sees and the ears hear.
Robotics is another area where science and technology are merging to externalize and imitate the human body. The Japanese,in particular,are advancing the art,and it is again just a matter of time before robots of various kinds are a familiar part of our daily lives.
In sum, we are not only learning to replace internal human parts but also increasingly learning how to externalize and replicate these parts that will result over time in the anthropomorphization of non-flesh and blood beings.
Question is, if science, medicine, and technology keep moving these trends forward, are we, as humankind, in danger of externalizing ourselves out of existence? Is DATA of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or the hero of Isaac Asimov's I-Robot series in our future? Or are the "Terminator" and Mr. Smith of "The Matrix" fame our destiny?
In a significant way, the evolution of organ transplants, artificial organs, robotics, and nanotechnologies combined with advances in computer and long-distance communications is a continuation of the concept of the replaceable part born out of the Industrial Revolution. The central concept is that if one part breaks you just go to the warehouse and get yourself another part to replace it. This concept goes hand-in-hand with the concept of standardization.
You need two factors for the wide adoption of a technology: standardization and portability. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the concept of standardization, or perhaps we should say the reverse: the idea of standardization gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. We are still living with this concept today. For example, without the "helical scan" standardization parameters agreed to by a group of Japanese electronics manufacturers in the late 1950s, VHS and Ya". videocassette devices would not have evolved, and, hence, videodiscs, CDs, and DVDs, etc.
I can remember also as a nine-year-old boy in England in the early 1950s the array of electrical plugs one needed to purchase to operate any number of electrical devices, and then coming to the United States and noting that all electrical outlets were the same. It struck me then, as it does now why, in part, it took England so much time to recover from the devastation of World War II.
The other factor is portability, or, perhaps, I should say, mobility. Nature has given us the concepts of portability and mobility. Our reproductive organs--that are permanently attached--give great portability and mobility to Homo sapiens' ability to reproduce, or at least initiate the process of reproduction. Unlike the stationary Great Pyramid of Giza or the image of Mohammed and the Mountain, reproduction of the human species can take place anywhere.
Homo sapiens have found many ways to imitate the concept of portability and mobility. The computer is an excellent example. The earliest of computers, the 1940s EN I AC at the University of Pennsylvania, was very large, hot, and not portable in the least. Today, we all carry computers in our breast pockets, briefcases, or backpacks. Increasingly, these devices are endowed with more computing and communications power. Increasingly, we get closer and closer to the computing power of the human brain. Increasingly, lost brain power and/or lost limb or musculature power is being replaced with electronic devices combined with mechanical means.
The issue going forward is this: While these technologies are meant to serve man, will their continued evolution ultimately reverse purpose? Will we end up serving the devices? There is an argument to be made that goes something like this: while a host of mechanical and electronic devices have been created to raise humankind's standard of living and provide people with more time for a reflective life, is it not also true that these devices take a host of people to maintain them? Yes, we have planes that get us half-way around the world in less than twenty-four hours, but it takes a host of people to fly the planes, guide the planes, maintain the planes, get tickets to the passengers, service the passengers in the plane, and so on. Same for all transportation devices. Same even for computing devices. I can remember when I was a media consultant at Prudential Insurance in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1970s, and mainframe computers were being peddled to Fortune 500 companies as "the" replacement for all those clerical employees. I can recall many of the top executives rubbing their hands in glee at the perceived prospect of significantly reducing payroll and benefits costs. Of course, the outcome is the reverse. Today, as John Naisbitt has rightly pointed out, the most frequently occurring job, at least in the Western world, is "clerk."
When new technologies come along that have the deep impact of replacing older technologies, there is always a large outcry of that part of the population directly affected by the change. What is now happening in the world of print journalism is a case in point. Print journalism is in a slow but inexorable decline as electronic journalism continues to accelerate. This event is also an extension of our brains. Print is the analog step between orality as the primary means of communication and electronics as the primary means of communication. Orality has not been replaced, but electronics certainly extends the human means of communication and helps to transcend time and space.
There is much more that can be said about this, but in this context the issue is what is going to happen in the future. First, the replacement of human beings by machines is not just around the corner, despite the imaginations of numerous filmmakers. Darth Vader is not in our immediate future. The central reason is technology takes time to become widely adopted, even though in the United States we have the perception, or rather the perception is purveyed to us by the media that "new things" are being adopted by everyone. Another reason is that according to UNESCO, there are still close to one billion people on the planet who are illiterate, mostly women, and illiterate people are not about to enter the world of advanced technologies in a hurry. Clearly, there is a great unevenness, technologically speaking, globally, and this inequality won't be rectified soon. Further, as any number of political revolutions has shown, human beings value freedom and self-expression, even though they might lose it for a time or are unaware that they can have it just by reaching for it. If there were ever a time in the future when machines expressed a motivation for dominance, my own expectation would be great resistance on the part of human beings. Perhaps, all we do is pull the plug as was done to the confused HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" to prevent it from doing further damage--unless the device is energy self-contained.
In conclusion, it might be sometime before "SkyNet" takes over or we all live in a "Matrix" like world and provide electricity for a multitude of machines. The technological roots of this potential scenario are certainly there, but it is probable a future generation will have to deal with it.
Eugene Marlow, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Journalism & The Writing Professions at Baruch College, The City University of New York.
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|Publication:||ETC.: A Review of General Semantics|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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