At the IQ2 Debate, asking, are we becoming enslaved by technology? , the negative side (the side that was cheerleading technology as liberator) – with the possible exception of Princeton philosopher and celebrity debater Peter Singer – presented interestingly nuanced arguments, as did some of the audience members who came to the microphones.
In addition, from my perspective, those who argued in the affirmative (that yes, we are becoming enslaved by technology) offered some illuminating arguments regarding the role of addiction in making the claims of “choice” hollow.
Alastair McGibbon convincingly argued that our increasing dependence on technology for getting us through our days and nights is removing the power of choice. Katina Michael’s amazing long poem then filled in the vast stream of evidence documenting the slowly boiling frog transfer of power and agency from brain, body, and relationship, to an emperor-has-no-clothes mechanism.
Stepping back, one sees that the two sides of the debate can be partitioned into what technology has done and is doing for us (as the technology is liberating side proclaimed), versus what technology has done and is doing to us, as Bernard Keene so aptly pointed out and Nicholas Carr illuminates in depth in his new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us .
Unfortunately, the two choices, affirmative or negative to the proposition, left out what for me is the reality of our ongoing affair with technology. That is, that technology is the proverbial double-edged sword, both liberating and enslaving. Or to give it an oxymoronic Shakespearean twist – “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire.” Technology is liberating enslavement – however with the liberation increasingly concentrated in the few and fewer, as McGibbon illuminated in his closing remarks.
My only disappointment was that after the debate the audience swung to the side of liberation, though marginally (49 to 46 percent). I suspect that the prestige of Peter Singer, his getting in the last word, along with his sweeping aside of having to deal with questions of addictive harm – allowing fence straddlers to carry on clicking, flicking, sweeping, swiping, and scrolling, a.k.a., business as usual, sans guilt – might have had something to do with the swing.
Peter Singer’s case was, for me, shallow, almost clichéd, from a technology-as-liberator perspective. His view that, so what if we as a species are eventually replaced, is kind of flippant. I could be wrong, but the feeling that comes across is that he really didn’t devote much time to his presentation, or to taking the debate seriously. I think, interestingly, he appeared surprised by the number of people who raised their hands when he asked whether they had consulted their smartphones. He said they were in the minority, but not very convincingly. Regarding his and Antony Loewenstein’s hard rock case for techno-liberation, the eradication of smallpox – maybe not so fast. (See “Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier than You Think”.)
Had I been there I think I could have made a good case for we being in control, we having choice, as a comforting, self-serving (for those selling the stuff) illusion. Regarding Antony Loewenstein’s arguing that we all have a choice, we don’t have to accept the corporate cool-aid, with Asher Wolf seconding the motion: yes, that’s true. Some will make the effort to engage Daniel Kahneman’s “system 2,” to use our critical thinking brain, rather than knee-jerk responding to every next new shiny and new that tantalizes our reptilian brain coming down the corporate pike. But as Alastair McGibbon pointed out, most will take the path of most convenience, comfortably falling into the trap of dissipative harm.
Re enslavement, we view technology as slave owners once viewed their slaves, but the enslaved, by rendering the masters increasingly helpless, enslave the masters. Offload the work onto hard and soft robot slaves that will do so that we don’t have to do. But, as the power in robot hardware n apps does more and more, what will happen to our brains and bodies when the need to pay attention, when the need to remember, when the need to move is swept away by technology that does the attending, the remembering, the moving?
A possible answer can be found far afield in the world of slave making ants, the only other species that enslaves its own kind. The famed biologist/myrmecologist/prolific author, Edward O. Wilson, conducted experiments on master/slave ant species adding weight to the observations based on experiments conducted by Peter Huber way back in 1810. While Wilson disavows any lessons to be learned from ant slavery for our own species regarding the institution of human slavery, we might do well not to dismiss the enfeebling of ant masters that have become dependent on their captive slave ants doing the work.
The particular species of ant Wilson was studying was not an advanced slave maker. When their slaves were taken away, the master ants still retained a latent capacity for work that was reactivated, “rapidly taking over most of the tasks formerly carried out by the slaves…[This] latent capacity for working [is],” Wilson continues, “a capacity that is totally lacking in more advanced species of slave making ants.”
The ratchet of parasitic dependence in ants has a message for us.
But there is a caveat. “The [master] workers that had lost their slaves did not, however, perform their tasks well. [Most significantly,] the slaveless ants lacked one behavior pattern that is essential for the survival of the colony: foraging for dead insects and other solid food. They even ignored food placed in their path. When the colony began to display signs of starvation and deterioration, [Wilson] returned to them some slaves…The bustling slave workers soon put the nest back in good order, and the slave makers just as quickly lapsed into their usual indolent ways.”
The takeaway: Yes. We’re not ants, but just as the slave making ants lost the ability and willingness to do for themselves, even to the extent of perishing from hunger, so do we face the increasing prospect of a losing it for not using it future.
According to Wilson, “The evolution of social parasitism in ants works like a ratchet, allowing a species to slip further down in parasitic dependence but not back up toward its original free-living existence” . The ratchet of parasitic dependence in ants has a message for us: Just because technology can do the work for us, doesn’t mean that it should.
Jeff Robbins is with Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.