A recent article The Tech Backlash We Really Need in the New Atlantis made the following statement about the Humane Tech project: “Its vision, however, presupposes broad public agreement about what exactly constitutes more humane technology. It trades, in other words, on a shared vision of human flourishing that may not actually exist. It speaks of ‘our humanity’ and ‘how we want to live,’ but it is not altogether clear that it offers a meaningful answer to the questions of what constitutes humanity, of how we want to live, of what we means.” Reading through the comments here, it seems to me that there is a implied sense of what “human” means, but I have to agree with the author of the article that perhaps there is no shared vision of human flourishing, though many obvious ways of diminishing our humanity through technology have been clearly identified.
Perhaps Jaron Lanier in his book You are Not a Gadget can provide a basic starting point: “Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.” More broadly, he says, “The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.”
Here are some of his specific suggestions for reclaiming humanity on the web:
1. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out. 2. If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described event defines you, as they would define a machine.
The “inner voice” is something that has to be steadily worked at in order to be defined as human. Where does our unique voice come from? What makes it the work of one and only one person rather than a mashup of half-digested options gathered online?
In the second example, our internal state is what makes the event something human rather than some literal event that has a built-in definition which would be the same for a machine.
Breaking through the software’s definition of a person is what seems to be called for, because in comparison to the built-in richness of the human being, that definition can only be reductive. Perhaps we need to investigate the human qualities that social media serves as a substitute for, such as a direct perception of another’s ego. Then we might be able to understand why the definitions built into the software don’t allow those qualities to emerge. Perhaps trying to fit our human capacities into a technological box is inherently impossible and would only be attempted in a society where powerful interests realize significant gains from the type of human beings formed by such software. Perhaps it’s time to search a little deeper.