We must be mindful about how we engage with technology: what we use it for, why, and whether it helps us or hinders us. Sometimes our tech seems to be flowing in inhumane directions, and it feels beyond our power to redirect it. But humankind dams rivers, and alters the landscape in countless other radical ways: As we can redirect our technological growth—then why shouldn’t we direct it towards humans? 

Recently our Next Nature Fellows—people from different disciplines working in and around the next nature theme—came together to discuss this pressing question and explore the grassroots of our upcoming research topic: Humane Technology.

Humane technology?

Humane technology is a rather ambiguous term that is open to several interpretations. It also raises the question if can technology be humane — it seems as if it’s a contradictory statement in itself.

The Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘humane’ “as to having a civilizing effect on people.” Humane technology then, refers to technology that takes society to a stage of development considered to be more advanced, by taking human needs as its starting point. Because why create technology that does not respond to how humans learn, think, and create and thrive?

With all respect to the future, we see two possible paths along which our co-evolutionary relationship with technology could unfold: the dream path and the nightmare one. We are at the turning point where we can either sleepwalk into our technological future, or contain it by building humane technology that safeguards our humanity and replenishes society.

Upgrading technology vs downgrading humanity

Many conversations about the future focus on the point where technology surpasses human capability and exceeds human vulnerabilities. Humane technology therefore requires that we understand our most vulnerable human instincts so we can design accordingly and protect us from abuse.

In his Letter to Humanity, NNN director Koert van Mensvoort writes about his concern about the questionable line between technology that facilitates humanity, and technology that deprives our human potential. “And I don’t see that as desirable, because I’m a person, and I’m playing for team human.” We must therefore envision a world where human needs and goals are incorporated into the very core of technology as they are built.

Six principles

In order for technology to thrive, we’ve taken a step towards creating a common vocabulary with six principles that should be at the core of developing humane technology.

Humane technology should feel natural, rather than estranging.
Humane technology should revive human intuitions.
Humane technology takes human values as its cornerstone.
Humane technology resonates with the human senses.
Humane technology should empower people.
Humane technology must improve the human condition.

Domesticated by the system

Koert van Mensvoort wonders whether humane technology is about technological innovation or social innovation. The two seem to go hand in hand. William Myers thinks solutions and approaches towards technology are humane, although these are not technological.

Arne Hendriks wonders whether we even need technology to become more humane, and thinks that technology itself has no morality. In his view, ‘humane’ is an ethical debate (just have a look at the technology events that raised ethical concerns in the last two years).

In a way, you could say that humane technology is about domesticating ourselves in relation to our (technological) surroundings. Technology not only alters our environment, it ultimately alters us. In an optimistic view, the changes to come will allow us to be more human than ever before.

“And what about animals and other lifeforms?” Teresa van Dongen wonders. It’s a legit hesitation; ‘humane’ does imply solutions that puts human concern at the core of the solution. It’s therefore necessary to question ourselves what is meant with such an adjective. Does it mean that something respects human and non-human living actors? Or is it just related to humans? And what will be the purpose of this definition?

Sure, humane technology hints at tech that is good for humanity, but when we speak about humane technology, we need to broaden the actors into the conversation — not only for ourselves, but for the planet as a whole.

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