Science and Technology

The Human Effect

June 5, 2019  • Román Gil Alburquerque

IN 1984, during the Super Bowl, Apple released a memorable—and later vaunted—commercial for its Macintosh computer. British track and field athlete Anya Major takes a literal hammer to Orwellian totalitarianism and ushers in a utopia of individual freedom. That sense of freedom was still in vogue in 1996, when John Perry Barlow published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Suddenly, the global social environment was as free and as ubiquitous as any human environment ever had been—even beyond the reach of law. Freedom appeared unstoppable: the old world had fallen, just like the Berlin Wall less than a decade before. The global transfer of knowledge was infinite and the new civilization, Barlow wrote, “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” The technological revolution would lead to a quick, radical, and uninhibited liberation of the individual in all spheres of life. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence would lead to material emancipation.

But soon, a degree of disenchantment crept in. Far from creating a utopia, Silicon Valley rebels were abandoning their initial humanism in favor of a technocracy. Now they were monetizing knowledge and attention spans, ignoring the negative effects of technology on the person and society. Many today fear that human work itself is destined to disappear, as intelligent machines replace us and expel a large part of the population from socioeconomic safety. In short, many are bracing for a terrible loss of control with potentially catastrophic consequences. Technology might undermine liberal democracy and jeopardize the social pacts that can create unprecedented economic development. This could lead to an extended apocalyptic future in which technological innovation and hyper-connected networks destroy widely accepted values and civil rights.

In a democracy, this dystopian effect manifests itself by damaging venerable institutions such as parliamentary representation and the free press. Increasingly powerful “fake news” unspools its clickbait and is digested by the consumer, whose desires it knows in ever greater detail. Fake news is not about departing from traditional ideology or advancing a cause. Its mission is to disrupt. This translates into stoking our least nuanced impulses, encouraging populism, promoting tribalism, and embracing simple, stark solutions to complex, intricate problems. Stripped of humanity, we will all become nothing more than avatars of our previous selves.

The history of humans is also a history of unrest. Notably, the industrial revolutions that began a little over two centuries ago—which were and are, to a large extent, technological revolutions—accelerated a set of similarly profound and radical societal changes. But this disruption is not apocalypse, or it does not need to be. The effects of revolutions are often beneficial for the welfare of communities and the individual. We have learned, or should have learned, lessons from past economic crises that allow us to face periods of transition wisely. Given intelligence and political vision, these can be growth periods.

Unlike horses, replaced without complaint when automobiles obliterated their economic importance as a means of transport, human beings have a voice in political decision-making. We can create smart options for inclusive and socially viable economic growth without forsaking an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. Machines may replace certain replicable tasks, but they cannot match our versatility, creativity, and common sense. Technocrats cannot easily contain imagination.

That is not to say we should be complacent about how technology affects society. We must educate ourselves and learn to exercise good judgment. We must be discerning about information, able to discriminate against falsehoods, and sophisticated about potential manipulation. This is not a new phenomenon. We can make use of our abilities as rational and social beings to profoundly reflect on technological change and act politically and decisively in the face of its potency.

We can think and we can act—therefore, we must do so. That is how humanity handles revolution and transformation.