First posted on August 30, 2021
The strange conceit of Humanity 2.0
Back on 25 September 2011, The Guardian’s Ian Tucker interviewed Steve Fuller [who holds the Auguste Comte chair in social epistemology in Warwick University’s Department of Sociology] about his new book, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human, Past, Present and Future.
Here’s a quick definition of Humanity 2.0 from the article:
Humanity 2.0 is an understanding of the human condition that no longer takes the “normal human body” as given. On the one hand, we’re learning more about our continuity with the rest of nature – in terms of the ecology, genetic make-up, evolutionary history. On this basis, it’s easy to conclude that being “human” is overrated. But on the other hand, we’re also learning more about how to enhance the capacities that have traditionally marked us off from the rest of nature. Computers come to mind most readily in their capacity to amplify and extend ourselves. Humanity 2.0 is about dealing with this tension.
This is a challenging notion that reflects a particular idea of what it means to be human. Note “the capacities that have traditionally marked us off from the rest of nature.”
A Forbes article by Neil Sahota from 1 October 2018 has the title Human 2.0 Is Coming Faster Than You Think. Will You Evolve With The Times?opens with:
“Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity,” author, computer scientist, and inventor Ray Kurzweil once said. “We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings.” In the past few years, there has been considerable discussion around the idea we are slowly merging with our technology, that we are becoming transhuman, with updated abilities, including enhanced intelligence, strength, and awareness.
Note: “what is unique about human beings.”
There is a common theme here – humans are special and separate from Nature. What does this mean about how we should conduct ourselves? There are options – how should we choose?
Here our human identity is no more than our physical being. Kurzweil is a techno-romanticist in my view. Saying that humans created machines “to extend ourselves” reflects an appalling lack of insight into the impact of machines – which has been [in modern times] to displace humans from labour processes. Machines have come about by harnessing science in the pursuit of benefit – usually profit by a social elite. Other benefits were incidental.
It is certainly true that humans have invented devices that overcome challenges, and these have often benefited a community with little to no enduring downsides. But the history of human machine making also includes devices that have delivered misery and mayhem – upon humans, animals, and the natural world. That has been considered price worth paying – but by those exacting the cost, not those paying the price.
The twin passions for scientific inquiry and technological innovation have been married to an economic system more focused on benefit to the few than upon extending the welfare of humans in general [or beyond].
The Fuller article goes on to assert that: We need to be always reminding ourselves that we have always been enhancing ourselves, that science has always been enhancing the human condition, that we have been trusting machines over our own bodies for at least 300-400 years now. We’ve already broken through that barrier – we do live in a very artificial world. Even though the stuff on the horizon may amplify our powers tremendously, it is nevertheless part of the same process. It is a step change but it’s the same story, the story of scientific progress.
The idea of “a very artificial world” bothers me. If humanity is part of nature, we can assert that we have modified the world to such a degree that our handiwork is the critical attribute of the environment we live in. But that’s not ‘artificial’ – at least that’s not a good way to think about it. ‘Anthropocentric’ would be a better way. Nature expresses through humans too.
Fuller seems to sum up his point of view in his idea that “Humanity 2.0 is less about the power of new technologies than a state of mind in which we see our lives fulfilled in such things.” The notion that we see our lives fulfilled in new technologies seems to be devoid of something that should be fundamental to our sense of what it is to be human.
Sahota walks down the same path. He says: “In the past few years, there has been considerable discussion around the idea we are slowly merging with our technology, that we are becoming transhuman, with updated abilities, including enhanced intelligence, strength, and awareness.” He sums up his vision with: “Are we staring down the gulf at “Human 2.0?””
Tech is Just Tech
We are not. I can’t imagine that a finely crafted flint tool is less precious than an iPhone. One is a tool critical to human welfare. The other is not. Indeed, any of the ‘tech’ that was fundamental to survival of our distant ancestors might have excited a powerful sense connection. Fire was so essential social rules and even rituals were crafted to ensure that it was treated with the respect, if not reverence, that matched its purpose. Surely here was a boundary between Humanity 1.0 and 2.0 – a Promethean demarcation?
Tech can be used to extend our innate capacity, obviously, but it has been doing that for millennia. Among indigenous Australians the woomera enhanced the range of a spear.
Humans will also adopt and adapt technology developed elsewhere for advantage; and have been doing so for millennia. Indigenous Australians have embraced the rifle as tool to replace the spear. The industrial revolution and the post-industrial tech boom have lifted the power of human artifice to new levels – but we have gone way beyond critical tools for survival into the realm of indulgence.
There is a natural relationship between machines/tech and humans. But it is nothing like the Humanity 2.0 advocates imagine. The fusion of human and machine is not a fulfilment of an innate potential. Fuller said his book is about dealing with the tension generated by what we are learning about our place in nature and our potential with tech. I don’t think “tension” is the right word. Its more “trauma” occasioned by a failure to develop and promulgate a decent moral code and philosophical outlook. If there is a “tension” it concerns a false and misguided hope.
As we continue transform our life-worlds our technology increasingly reflects no necessity for physical – rather an analogue of the magical or spiritual. In fact, it does seem at times that what we are witnessing is a materialist mentality aspiring to re-spiritualise the human realm with self-moving and ‘intelligent’ devices. One could see that the ultimate tech dream is to replace a ‘non-existent God’ with one crafted from human endeavour – a vast embracing and parenting ‘internet of things’. It is an effort to re-animate the human reality that has been stripped of its spirits by immature thinking and presumptuous haste at arriving at conclusions.
The passion of transhumanism is to enable ‘immortality’ by transferring human consciousness into a more durable medium than the physical body.
This is magic wrought by intellect alone – an effort to replace what it has rejected, discarded, and abandoned as meaningless and unreal.
While we have invested more and more in improving our technology, we have invested far less in improving the human user. If the user is debased, then the use to which even the most sophisticated devices will be put will also be debased.
Technology does not ennoble or extend us. Only we are capable of doing that. The Humanity 2.0 community has either lost touch with, or never really been in touch with, the human spirit – as more than the animating force of our physical being. The dominance of materialism has been a profound disservice.
Our governments obediently endorse the passion for STEM subjects in our universities with no sense of the imbalance. We can have devices that magnify our desires and actions. But the increasing our capacity for self-governance and self-awareness to help us be more aware of those desires and actions is not supported to the same degree.
There’s a reason for this. Tech deals with how. Moral considerations introduce the problem of why and whether, and this carries the risk of saying “No” to technological innovations and solutions. This might bring about a demand that the determining measure of benefit should not reside with those who profit from making and distributing. Rather it belongs to the shared community of lives impacted in the chain of development, production, sale and use of any device.
Introducing Human 3.0
I want to suggest that we step over Humanity 2.0 as a dizzy conceit and delusion – a failure – and go straight to Human 3.0.
This is the rebalancing of human enterprise by restoring the spiritual and moral dimension to our equations concerning benefit. This is not an opposition to tech, just the addition of a corrective that is implicit in our decision-making from the outset.
Inclusive Design is an approach that seeks to include the spectrum of being human when designing a thing – rather than modelling all upon an ideal of a fully capable person of average attributes [who does not exist].
Holistic Design expands the embrace of Inclusive Design to cover more than the human – the vast realm of the other-than-human.
This would place technological development and its application in a context governed by an acknowledgement that human self-interest is not the final arbiter of human conduct.
At present the worse of human impulses have been unleashed by the best of our technology in ways unprecedented in known history. The constraints upon those less than noble impulses are weak – as if the logic for such is uncertain. The rallying cry of freedom has no refrain of duty or obligation.
The greatest tech advances in the past few decades have relied upon those with little restraint, or high purpose, for growth. All should benefit from technological advances, but not at the cost of manners and civil conduct.
Human 3.0 is an effort to evolve a conception of being human in what is fundamentally a new age framed by two considerations:
- What future human ingenuity may devise – and what we may encounter.
- What restorations and reparations are necessary to heal the wounds wrought by our past unbalanced ingenuity upon the lives of this planet.
We can go forward unfettered by what we will not/dare not acknowledge only if we look back the same degree we look forward. If we can do that, we may be able to say we have grown up as a member of our species. In a sense Human 3.0 is about taking the first steps as a spiritual adult.
This is not a suggestion to form a movement. Rather Human 3.0 is a personal assertion of commitment to restoring balance. Part of doing so is the re-imagining of the spiritual and the moral.
Since writing this I have encountered three fascinating ideas. The first is in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. The second is Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The third is a series of books on the psychology of bias and thinking – Daniel Kahneman, John A. List and Mahzarin R Banaji & Anthony G Greenwald are my main sources at the moment.
Here’s a bold summation, which is at a tentative stage. We humans are evolving via what we presently understand as individuality from a past state that was group-based, but largely unconscious and shaped by instincts and emotions toward another group-based state that is shaped by higher levels of self-awareness and ‘spiritual’ ideas and ideals. Individualism is not an end state. Religion, which has been the guiding principle in the earlier group-based state, has suffered in this present transitional phase for two reasons.
First, it badly straddles the two stages, and muddles the elements of both into a chaos of emotions and the illusion of rational thought. Second, the transition through individualism has excited an over focus on left brain activity – which is mistaken for ‘reason’, rather than self-centred utility.
Contemporary psychological research makes it pretty clear that humans are dominated by instincts and emotions – and we are not very good at thinking. We use the word ‘reason’ to denote what is essentially intellectualism. In the esoteric tradition there is a clear distinction made between the ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ minds – one tapping into instinct and emotion and the other into what we might call soul awareness.
The substantial abandonment of religion from The Enlightenment period on led to the abandoning of language (and ideas) that could make the necessary distinction.
The fascination with tech reflects the transitional phase we are in. It is post-biological, but still doing the job at an instinctual and emotional level – and at the level of self-centred utility. Materialistic science is becoming the new metaphysics and moral philosophy. It wants to create an analogue of an animated and intelligent reality for humans to live in. There is no comfort with any spirituality at this stage – in terms of a wider intellectual discourse. Science has not yet advanced beyond materialism, and that is at least a century away, or longer, in terms of there being a significant evolutionary step.
The idea of Human 3.0 is aspirational. But I think we can get a decent feel for what it means. Tech isn’t the post-biological state to be yearned for. That’s just substitution for materialists who can’t imagine anything else. Overcoming the domination of instincts and emotions in framing our sense of individuated being is our biggest challenge. That can be done only through intentional action. It must also be beyond the focus on self-centred left-brain dominated utility and toward a holistic affirmation of the passion even materialists share – an animated and intelligent reality.