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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/23/14

Perils of Technology: Dehumanization and Extinction

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According to Greek mythology, when the Greek god, Prometheus, stole fire from the sun, a series of events were triggered that ultimately led to the opening of Pandora's Box. This myth is a metaphysical metaphor for two parallel transitions in the human condition in the unfolding of human history. Technology's impact since the industrial revolution foreshadows two coincidental and ironic cataclysms, both of which have fateful consequences for the human race. One is the growing dehumanization of the human species through uncontrolled and inadvertent rapid advances in technology while the other is the lemming-like sprint towards the precipice of extinction resulting from the very technology designed to improve our lives.

Dehumanization is a complex subject resulting from thousands of years of philosophers' musing about the essence of human nature. Although there is no consensus among philosophers, I have chosen the following essential characteristics of humanness, which include rational choice and free will (Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, William James, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jean-Paul Sartre), obviously one of the more contentious characteristics, symbolic communication, complex social structures, social interactions, self-actualization (Maslow), self-awareness, and desires.

Technology has eroded these characteristics by gradually replacing or superseding each erstwhile, distinguishing human trait with technological advances that, according to the aforementioned unique human attributes, render superfluous our own set of qualities that define us as human.

For example, technological means of communications have advanced rapidly based on the six-month doubling time of computer storage and processor speed. A high percentage of human interaction is now conducted through texting, emailing, and other social fora through which humans connect. These forms of exchange undermine the human touch by eliminating the richness of human interaction personalized through tone of voice and body language and propinquity. Reading a text is not the same as speaking in person.

At the same time spelling and grammar skills are disappearing as efficiency has spawned a new language of symbols to replace whole phrases such as LOL for "laugh out loud". As language degenerates into a sequence of symbols on a screen, language capabilities will be diminished as well. Unfortunately, most reasoning necessitates a precise use of language to formulate deductive or inductive constructs in pursuit of the truth. Rational choice becomes virtually impossible once human-language skills become weaker.

Another deleterious attack on our reasoning skills, based on the pervasive obsession with screens such as television, video games and movies, is the loss of skills essential to analysis, critical thinking, comprehension, and synthesis. According to Jane M Healy, in Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, "Children surrounded by fast-paced visual stimuli (TV, videos, computer games) may be expected to arrive at school unprepared for academic learning." According to her studies, the panoply of dazzling images that captivates them for long periods of time are contrived to hold their attention.

In addition, since television and movies are image-oriented, these images are apotheosised into the ultimate authority, establishing the truth on any given question. Frequently, pursuing the truth through careful research and analysis is replaced by a single image plucked from its context and historical background. No thinking needed.

For example, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann were instrumental in convincing the American public to join the British in World War I through the use of images such as a giant gorilla wearing a German helmet tearing down the statue of liberty or convincing women to smoke by transforming the cigarette into a symbol of the emancipated women. When George W. Bush was trying to deceive the public into believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, an atomic explosion often appeared in the background as members of his administration warned about the smoking gun becoming a mushroom cloud.

Furthermore, technology in the classroom will destroy the opportunity to teach students critical thinking and analytical skills by eliminating the one of many mechanisms, for example, the Socratic Method or the application of Bloom's taxonomy, invoked by the teacher to stimulate these embryonic skills. Although an online system can pose questions, it lacks the creativity, imagination, spontaneity, dynamic interplay, and ability to read body language, which teachers can utilize to pose questions that lead the class in the right direction without giving too much away. Educators can bounce a response from one student off another to encourage students to think and to serve as an example by demonstrating the type of questions that advance their thinking. Online exchanges are one-dimensional, impersonal, and rigid compared to the dynamic exchange between a group of students and a teacher.

Another problem in the education system is the vocationalization of the curriculum and the corporatization of decision-making. Curricula will increasingly reflect the agenda of large corporations. By eliminating those areas of study that seem on the surface to be subversive or radical or dissent in the extreme, it might superficially appear that the students are being offered an objective and neutral curriculum. But one person's neutrality is another's bias. For example, Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana and then President of Purdue University, sought to ban Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States from schools and libraries although his heavy-handed efforts became the Midas touch. Education suffers as the range and scope of ideas to which the students are exposed becomes narrower and narrower.

As colleges and universities become more dependent on corporate funding and on research for defense industries, the textbook and curriculum decision-makers' choices reflect that reality, exposing the students to ideas with a particular bias.

Corporate influence in the education system and in the ownership of the media have limited free will and freedom of thought by excluding important ideas and information without which it is impossible to make reasoned choices. Since Chomsky and Herman's publication of Manufacturing Consent, ownership of the media has become vastly more concentrated, denying its audience critical points of view that may radically alter its perception of reality. The impact of the lies leading to Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq (1991), Afghanistan, Iraq (2003), and Libya, to name a few, confirm the efficaciousness of propaganda through the projection of misleading images and one-sided news reporting.

Social interaction is a critical part of the glue that binds us together as it promotes a sense of community, support systems, empathy and compassion. Our sense of community is diminishing as interaction between people through electronic systems expands. In earlier times, a sense of community frequently offered a sense of comfort, friendship, empathy and support. Until 1975, before East Timor civilization was destroyed by General Suharto of Indonesia under the aegis of the United States, the Timorese lived in villages of 25 people who supported each other and lived together with a spirit of sharing and cooperation. Notwithstanding the fact that their civilization was exceptional, it exemplified the benefits when the interactions of a group of people living together in close proximity encourage ambient social relations.

In addition to electronic gadgetry, movies and internet are becoming a distraction from events in the real world. Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of the internet, a high percentage of internet usage is devoted to games, social fora (Facebook), and porn, while movies and television content have become increasingly inane, violent and celebrity-deifying. When the internet serves as a tool for research, it is an extremely difficult task to separate the wheat from the chaff. Critical-thinking skills are essential in determining which sources are reliable and which are not; hence a catch-22.

Social interaction, free will, rational choice, symbolic communication are diminished by technological advances for most people. Desires are channeled into excessive consumption to sustain economic growth in the misguided belief that a higher GDP implies the rising of all or most boats. It has been many years since a correlation existed between workers' income and higher productivity. Wealth and celebrity have become false idols while shopping has become a ritual. In an age of excessive consumption, fewer people will reach the actualization stage in Maslow's hierarchy.

At the same time as technology strips us of our humanity, it is driving us towards the precipice. To be clear, it must be noted that technology is neutral and as Cassius explained to Brutus in Julius Caesar, "Men at some time are masters of their fates; the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Same principle applies to technology but there is a weakness in human nature that implicitly or unknowingly grants consent for new scientific developments that are deleterious to our health and the planet. Thermonuclear weapons, hair-trigger-alert systems, atrazine, GMOs, agent orange, drones, factory farming, horizontal fracturing, chemical and biological weapons, bottled water, high-fructose corn syrup, nuclear power, computer voting (think Ohio), deep-water oil drilling, and dioxin are an affirmation of the cleverness of the human species but at the same time a reprobation of our wisdom.

Ernst Mayr, a top biologist of the 20th century, explains this bifurcation of our intelligence into cleverness and wisdom by defining it as a lethal mutation that is a type of mutation in which the effect(s) can result in the death or reduce significantly the expected longevity of an organism carrying the mutation. Whether or not Mayr's theory is correct is irrelevant since humans are behaving as if it were true.

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I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which "Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death" was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z (more...)
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