With a masters in economics from the University of Zurich, James Heim worked with a Swiss foundation to bring technology companies to Switzerland. His work in this field, along with his close connection to nature, informed the research for his book Voluntary Enslavement: Technology’s Fast Development Reduces Diversity and Freedom. In the article below, which introduces several of the themes in his book, Heim considers our relationship with technology as a bargain with the devil – in which technology provides many things, but asks much in return. Impact on the environment and natural resources, as well as our human resources – “our time and attention, our curiosity and creativity, our ability to analyze or to cooperate” – and human health are all up for grabs in an enormous “trade-off” between humans and machines. Heim claims his work is not about judgement; rather he is hoping to open a “cultural blind eye” so that we become more aware and better able to negotiate the huge change technology advance presents. This is not the kind of article you will typically find on InsightaaS, but one that asks many of the questions we should be asking ourselves as promoters of the tremendous advance ‘technology for the good’ can engender. (ed.)
“The Giving Tree” is a well-known children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein and tells about the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. The tree eagerly fulfills the boy’s wishes, even if it means having its branches cut off and its trunk removed. Apart from asking the boy for his company – but not as a precondition for its generosity – the tree never requests something in return. In the simplicity of “The Giving Tree” story the boy’s fulfilled wishes do not create any further consequences for him.
Technology always asks for something in return
The story between humans and technology includes a broad range of trade-offs, which for most of our specie’s history have been too subtle and too slowly developing for us humans to take much notice. This began to change with the onset of industrialization.
All the technologies we’ve invented since – our tools, engineered substances, and machines – create many benefits for us. Increased food security, increases in health and longevity, ease and speed of transport, ease and speed of recording and sharing information, or the material comforts we enjoy are among the advantages we gain through technology use.
But technology doesn’t just give. Unlike the apple tree, technology always asks for something in return. A quote from the movie Inherit the Wind describes this: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’”
As technology helps us gain increases in food availability, lowers our mortality rates, gives us fast transportation and communication, or lets us enjoy material comforts, it is payed for with unintended, negative effects like overpopulation and overuse of natural resources, ever rising energy needs, environmental pollution and degradation, human caused species extinction, lifestyle diseases, increased monitoring by governments and corporations, etc.
Trade-offs and unintended effects of technological development
The amount of trade-offs and unintended effects which modern technological development brings about is still a new experience for our species and of far-reaching consequence. A consensus developed regarding unintended effects like those mentioned above. They are recognized as problematic developments. Yet regarding the effects that impact our humanity’s essence there is little awareness.
As more of our basic human resources – like our time and attention, our curiosity and creativity, our ability to analyze or to cooperate – are absorbed by technology invention and use, the less they are directly available for all things not technology.
Taking courtship, sex and sexual reproduction as originally non-technological expressions of our nature we can see how technology, by absorbing basic human resources, is increasingly defining these expressions: all the social media and dating apps, sex dolls/robots and other “toys”, potency enhancing pharmaceuticals, virtualization of sex through videos/Internet, hormone treatments, fertility drugs, in-vitro fertilization, pre-natal diagnostics, etc.
To be clear, this isn’t about judging – though all of us should certainly form opinions about a development so crucial for our species. Primarily this is about making ourselves aware of the dynamics we are unleashing.
The trade-offs and unintended effects of our means of communication and entertainment can also serve as examples: The benefits of smart phones, the Internet, TVs, computers, or video games are obvious, which is why they are so alluring to us: their entertainment value, and ease of information access and communication. Yet as we trade off being outdoors and active, being social and culturally engaged in the “real” world, or allowing downtime for ourselves, with more screen time, unintended effects become more noticeable: symptoms of addiction, increase in aggression, connection between sedentary life styles and sickness, e.g. obesity, disrupted sleep-patterns, cognitive, linguistic or emotional effects, eye health issues, e.g., nearsightedness, etc.
How do other trade-offs affect our lives? Such as making less things ourselves and increasingly letting robots take on those tasks, thinking and observing less ourselves and increasingly letting algorithms (artificial intelligence) do it for us, knowing less of how to grow and raise food and increasingly letting machines, artificial substances and manipulated genes dictate our nutrition, or taking less responsibility for our own health and increasingly delegating it to pharmaceuticals, medical technologies and procedures. How do such trade-offs affect for instance our self-image and self-reliance, the quality of our social interactions, our values, our capacity to make choices and to act, or our sense of independence and freedom?
We are about more than just technology
So far humans have seen themselves to be about more than just technology. That we are technological beings is one aspect of our humanity. Other key aspects of our humanity are for example that we are biological, social, cultural, psychological, spiritual beings, and that we are intelligent in more ways than technology creation and use. By intensifying our technology focus we bit by bit trade off the role of other defining human aspects in favor of technology’s role. The closer we align our specie’s essence with technology’s essence the more humanity’s non-technological aspects fade away.
Just how much we let technology take a hold of and define the great diversity of our human ways is arguably the most existential problem our species ever faced. Do we want humans to become an exclusively technological being, or do we see our other core aspects as an integral part of our journey? This is a colossal question. Most of us probably would – understandably – prefer to ignore it. But we ourselves, through the manner and speed of our technological self-empowerment, are bringing this question ever more forcefully upon us.
The Giving Tree view of technology’s benefits is erroneous. It spurs fast, indiscriminate and unmanageable technological progression. The trade-offs we submit ourselves to occur whether we notice them or not. If diversity and freedom are valuable facets of human existence, then especially we in highly technologized societies are urged to give the basic trade-offs of the humanity–technology relationship far more attention. Taking the cultural blind eye we’ve developed towards technology’s nature and turning it into a seeing one must be our first step in addressing this great challenge.