In 1486, six years before Columbus dropped anchor in the New World, the 23-year-old Italian nobleman Giovanni Pico della Mirandola penned a passionate discourse on the unique position of human beings in creation. In “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” he praises people as the noblest, most fortunate creatures ever. Humans, he writes, are the only beings granted freedom of choice. All others, even angels, possess unchanging natures that fix their existence from beginning to end; we alone have been granted the opportunity to shape our own lives. We can dedicate ourselves to earthly matters and vegetate like plants or abandon ourselves to our emotions like animals, but we can also focus on higher things and attain angelic status.
Homo sapiens is a strange and wonderful species.
I wholeheartedly agree with this early Renaissance thinker. Perhaps as a member of the species I’m biased, but I think human beings are fantastic. We’re the most complex, spectacular thing that’s happened to the earth in the last few million years. Not that it hasn’t been a bumpy ride. Beauty can be cruel. Our presence is putting entire ecosystems under pressure and heating up the planet. Yet at the same time, we’re breathing life into grains of sand by turning them into microchips and lighting up the planet at night with our cities. And I haven’t even mentioned individual achievements like Beethoven’s symphonies, Picasso’s paintings and Einstein’s theoretical physics. Sorry, Grand Canyon, dinosaurs and blue morpho butterflies: you’re magnificent, but you’re in a different category.
Homo sapiens is a strange and wonderful species, fragile and dominant, inventive and vulnerable, destructive and creative. It’s a miracle that we’ve come as far as we have, and our story is far from over. At least, I hope so. All good things come to an end, and eventually humanity will have to face its own extinction. Even the earth won’t be here forever. An estimated 5 billion years from now, the sun will burn out. In its final death spasm, it will balloon to 150 times its present size, just big enough to swallow up the earth. By then, it’ll be best for us if we’ve moved on from this solar system.
Five billion years is a long way off, so there’s time to take action before the earth becomes uninhabitable. But it sometimes seems as if we’re doing everything we can to move that date up. We’re filling the oceans with plastic and the atmosphere with CO2 and cutting down millions of acres of forest every year. Are we going to be the first species to engineer its own destruction? That would be incredibly stupid. It seems like an incomprehensible contradiction that such a creative species could risk falling victim to its own organizational ability.
Every coevolutionary relationship, whether between bees and flowers or people and technology, risks becoming parasitic.
I see two possible future paths along which our coevolutionary relationship with technology could continue. It could turn into a dream or a nightmare. Let’s start with the nightmare. Every coevolutionary relationship, whether between bees and flowers or people and technology, risks becoming parasitic. Parasitic relationships, in contrast to symbiotic ones, lack reciprocity. Leeches, tapeworms and cuckoos give nothing back to their hosts; they simply take. Could the tension we feel around technology have to do with this? We’ve been using technology since time immemorial because it serves us and extends our capabilities, but we’re in danger of ending up as its servants, a means rather than an end – technology’s hosts.
One place where this situation threatens is in the realm of medication. Medicines are undoubtedly a life-saving technology, but when drug companies try to maximize their own growth figures by convincing anyone who deviates from a statistical average that he or she has a disorder that needs treatment, we have to ask if they’re serving humanity or just an industry and its shareholders.
I’m playing for team humanity.
Want more examples? Think about the conflicting interests around social media companies. They connect people, enabling us to keep up with our friends and families, and that’s a good thing. But they also turn us into products by tracking our preferences and behaviors and selling that information to advertisers. Insofar as it’s used to sell menstrual products to people who actually need them, that’s OK. But when user data is deployed to push us into certain political decisions, interfering in the democratic process, it’s time to worry. Where exactly is the dividing line between technology that assists us in being human and the kind that encapsulates us and robs us of our human qualities? The looming specter is that humanity will end up as nothing more than the sex organ a bigger technological organism requires in order to propagate and spread. Smaller life forms encapsulated within larger ones are found in nature; think of the bacteria that perform various useful functions in our intestines. Will we soon be mere microbes in the “belly” of a memetic organism, our human potential suppressed? At that point, we’ll no longer be an end, just a means. And I don’t want that, since I’m a person, and I’m playing for team humanity.
Our technology doesn’t just alter our environment; ultimately it also alters us.
Now for the dream. The dream is that we wake up and realize that being human isn’t a destination but a journey. Our technology doesn’t just alter our environment; ultimately it also alters us. The changes to come present us with an opportunity to become more human than ever before. What if we were to use technology to magnify our best qualities and address our weaknesses? For lack of a better word, I’ll call this kind of technology humane. Humane technology would take human needs as its starting point. It would expand our senses rather than blunting them. It would play to our strengths rather than making us superfluous. It would mesh with our instincts and feel natural. Humane technology would serve not only individuals but – first and foremost – humanity as a whole. And last but not least, it would realize dreams we have about ourselves.
So what do you dream of? Flying like a bird? Living on the moon? Swimming like a dolphin? Communicating by sonar? Telepathy with loved ones? Equality between the sexes and races? Empathy as a sixth sense? A house that grows with your family? Do you dream of living longer? Maybe even forever?
The changes to come present us with an opportunity to become more human than ever before.
For thousands of years, humanity was a relatively insignificant species on earth. But our childhood days are over. We’ve used our inventiveness to lift ourselves up out of the mud of the savanna. And we’ve become an evolutionary catalyst that’s transforming the face of the earth. This process isn’t complete. Human beings are the bridge between the biosphere we sprang from and the technosphere we’ve built. Our actions don’t just affect our own future but also the planet as a whole and all the other species that live here. That’s quite a responsibility. If we don’t think we’re up to it, we should have stayed in our caves. But we didn’t. That’s not our style. We’ve been technological since the day we became human. The desire to get back to nature is as understandable as it is impossible. To do so would be to deny our humanity.
What if we were to use technology to magnify our best qualities and address our weaknesses?
The unique thing about people, as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola argued more than 500 years ago, is that we aren’t defined by a single fixed character. Truly advanced technologies become part of human nature. Clothing, cooking and agriculture are fixtures in all our lives. Though new technologies don’t attain this level right away and tend to feel uncomfortable and artificial at first, some will eventually become natural. Humanity will collectively determine which ones it wishes to accept. One thing is certain: we can’t imagine a future for humanity without thinking about the future of technology. And our technology doesn’t just alter our environment; ultimately it also alters us. We are not evolution’s final destination. We have to move forward, even though we’ve just arrived. We’re still in our adolescent phase, but it’s time to grow up. The currently evolving memetic organisms represent the sum of our collective actions. We are connected to them, and we can influence them. They will encapsulate us, but they could also lift us up. They could help us to rise above the primitive tribal tendencies that have been embedded in our genes since the Stone Age. They could offer us new insights, opportunities and experiences that will extend our humanity. They could help us to develop a planetary perspective that will make life better for everything and everyone. Technology is humanity’s self-portrait. It’s the materialization of human ingenuity in the physical world. Let’s make it a work of art we can be proud of. Let’s use technology to build a more natural world and map out a path to the future thats good not just for us but for all the other species, the earth, and ultimately the universe as a whole.
Technology is humanity’s self-portrait. It’s the materialization of human ingenuity in the physical world.
Much is at stake. Choices we make today will impact not only the lives of our children but those of their children and the future of all humanity. So I’d like to ask you, my readers, to do something. I’d like to invite every human being – living and not yet born, on earth and elsewhere – to ask one simple question of every technological change that enters your life: does this extend my humanity? The answer usually won’t be black or white, yes or no. More often, it will be something like 60 percent yes and 40 percent no, or vice versa. And you’ll sometimes disagree with others and have to debate the matter before you can reach consensus. But that’s a good thing. If all of us consistently opt for technology that extends our humanity, I know the human race will be all right. How? That remains to be seen. No one knows what people will be like in a million years, or whether there will even be people, and if so, whether we would recognize them as such. Will we accept implants? Reprogram our DNA? Double our brain size? Grow wings? I don’t know and can’t speculate. But my hope is that in a million years people will still be humane. Because as long as we’re humane, we’ll be human. And that’s as close to angelic as you can get.
This essay is republished from ‘Next Nature: Why Technology Is Our Natural Future’ (2020) by Koert van Mensvoort, founder and creative director Next Nature Network.