What it means to be human


#8

As long as people are creating the software, there is hope for technology that takes into account the flaws, frailties, and vulnerabilities of human beings. Once the software is created by machines, that possibility is lost, and the likelihood of some catastrophic ending for humanity is increased.

As someone from the humanities, I would add that “technology” is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. It is just one aspect, and other things, including the arts and literature, are necessary too. A wise poet and doctor once said that you won’t find the news in poetry, but every day, men die for lack of what is found there.


#9

I’m re-recommending the article by L. M. Sacasas, director of the Greystone Theological Institute Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology. What it is be to human is a complex and misunderstood issue which is why we need experts to the rescue.

Technology is created by humans and therefore is human. The unethical and unsophisticated parts of technology reflect being human. It is human as human is, not as we would not like it to be.

Many people went into tech because it’s what they can do, maths, logic, design, accounting. On the other hand language, ethics, culture, philosophy, history, literature are just not considered on an application for a tech job. Tech workers and business people are often uneducated in the latter. What we have now is the unenlightened, uncivil and unsophisticated.

So we have these out of control human calculators designing our world, who don’t understand our world. For many companies, they would rather have human calculators, because people with ethics or cultural sensitivity would put a damper on their unethical cold profits.

All of this is human. But “human” is not the right word to describe whether something is good or bad (whatever good or bad means). “What does it mean to be human?” is not the right question at all. It’s an unrelated question. The question should be something like how can we create technology that’s cultured, civilised, ethical, enlightened, sophisticated.

Civil / Civilised / Sophisticated / Enlightened Technology

civilise : to bring out of a savage, uneducated, or rude state; make civil; elevate in social and private life; enlighten; refine

sophisticated : altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise; not naive

enlightened : to give intellectual or spiritual light to; instruct; impart knowledge to

(source: dictionary.com)


#10

Good thoughts, @free.

Did you see this article from the Guardian? It’s an excellent study of the friction and potential for change that result when technologists and artists meet.


#11

Thanks. I suppose artists are just as self-centered as business people.

I know of this article. What strikes me is the naivety of these “tech libertarians”, looking to move to the moon or Mars and thinking they can make the world all for themselves and recreate the Middle Ages. Apparently people like Peter Thiel know little of history.

It’s silly, move to New Zealand for safety? Clean air? If war or chaos or economic apocalypse breaks out (it won’t) then wouldn’t it be better to be in a rich, large country with a strong military? I travel prolifically, there are endless remote places in the world. Many of them are in these guy’s home country, the US. And I’m sure New Zealand is the only place in the world with clean air.

If these guys knew more about being human, they would understand they need other people to survive. They are applying the laws of the things they know, like computers, to people and the world. That is causing them to create these bizarre libertarian ideas, because they do not understand people or history that well.

Dear Silicon Valley, sorry but your grasp over the world and humanity will not multiply in the way computer processing power grows. And your machines are not going to make people useless, look at the history of technological progress. Your money will not grow infinitely, look at history again. You are a dependant of other people.


#12

This is what I’m talking about with education and technology. Displacing critical time needed in childhood for developing relationship skills. We learn how to relate to each other by trial and error at a young age with guidance. What I’m seeing today in school communities does not support a wholistic effort in supporting this.


#13

Thanks Boyd. Yes, this is the conversation I want to have, and I think mental health professionals need a seat at the table in tech companies so we can provide our perspective and expertise on relationships and wellbeing.
One thought is that relationships are alway corrupted or distorted when a third party manipulates it for that third party’s benefit. If difficult to have a meaningful connection when someone else is using that connection to make money or gain power. Regarding how relationships are built, the 2 main factors seem to be proximity and repetition. Just being around someone makes it more likely to become friends. Social media can sometime provide this, which is clear to the many people who made friends online. It can also “weaponize” proximity and repetition through, like you said, turning relationships into video games. They ways social media can mimic relationship in shallow and addictive ways is clearly very toxic. As long as clicks on ads is the business model, people will be manipulated to engage and click on ads. I think FB should become a subscription model. People will behave better, since people tend to respect what they pay for, and FB would have less incentive to let third parties manipulate or exploit users. The problem is that social media users are the resource being mined by social media companies, and these companies treat users like resources to exploit rather than humans to respect and earn repeat business from. People are easy to hack and we’ve been hacked. And any hacked person in a hacked relationship is not healthy.
There’s so much to talk about, but I’m going to sign off for now, it’s late and I’m getting tired. Thanks for the conversation : )


#14

That’s a fantastic article. Thanks for posting!

I think you misunderstand the author’s argument in the quote that you’re posting though. I think he’s most likely making a similar argument to Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, that emphasis on liberal individualism has made society less cohesive in ways that ultimately undermine society. Focusing on your unique inner voice and internal state as Jaron Lanier suggests is a good vision of human flourishing, but ironically it will probably not get people on the same page when defining human flourishing for themselves. This, according to the author, is the problem.

When it comes to what these competing visions of human flourishing are and how they deal with technology, the author and Jaron Lanier fall into two very different camps:

Jaron Lanier: Technology is good when it allows us to find our authentic inner voice, but should be avoided when it coerces our humanity to serve a mechanical system.

Wendell Berry (and the author): Technology is good when it helps us maintain deep networks of belonging, but should be avoided when it atomizes people or uproots them from their communities.

It may sound like I’m putting words into the author’s mouth, which I may well be. But I make this distinction because I know a lot of people who define flourishing this way, and the author has all the affiliations I would expect from someone in that camp (not least of which being that he quotes Wendell Berry).

I, however do not subscribe to either definition. I think that both have an incomplete understanding of the human experience, and neither one adequately accounts for social power dynamics. Perhaps a better vision is in tension somewhere between these two, but if that’s the case, it probably won’t get many adherents and we’re back to the same problem we started with. What is the vision of flourishing that we’re after? And is there any way we can get enough people to agree that we can make meaningful change?


#16

The feeling of belonging “deeply” to a community provided by technology is both artificial and superficial. Some very active in social media want to please and show their best sides, others wish to shock and provoke in order to appear as originals, be it original jerks.

This can be easily contrasted with real-world, prolonged exposure to individuals, which over time reveals their complex nature and…humanity. We love even the dark sides of those we love and respect for their many other qualities, we hate the near-perfect image of those who seek to please all, we have compassion for those who hurt because they themselves hurt in the past, we despise the hypocrits who over time cannot hide that they go against what they preach.

All these subtleties are lost in the ether, and our rich personalities are diluted in a digital persona that is a piece of code, a lie aimed at projecting who we want to be, what we hope the community wants to see in us, and not our truly human nature, which can only be captured in situations where our face expressions say it all.


#17

Reading through everyone’s posts, I’m noticing the theme of how the emotional immaturity and poor social skills of some elite technologists have shaped so much of social media and our conversations about it. How can we influence these guys to grow up, to overcome their blindspots and become more well rounded, empathetic leaders? Also, how do we challenge ourselves to grow up and do the same?


#18

Let’s be even more incendiary and direct on your point: many elite tech entrepreneurs are on the spectrum. IMO, treating someone with ASD is no small matter to be handed over to crowdsourcing.

The only reasonable thing we, as the ultimate users and potential victims of these systems, can do is to do our best to look into the heart or intentions of their creators and decide for ourselves if they are something we want to invite or not in our lives.

But I absolutely love your challenge about pointing this back at ourselves. We spend little time knowing ourselves, learning about ourselves, and developing what’s truly inside us. Many of these diversionary tools are filling our subconscious need to distract us from being alone with ourselves and our thoughts. And given that technology is a magnifier, an amplifier, it merely takes all those flaws and missing parts within ourselves and unleashes them on the broader world. Our impact on the world is wholly a reflection of what’s inside us and how well we know ourselves first.

This is a particularly crucial task as Yuval Noah Harari points out: that we are all at risk of losing our free will when we don’t take the time to know ourselves and yet billionaire platforms know so much more about our conscious and subconscious. They know how to trigger what they know about us, and they leave us believing we are in control of ourselves. It’s already happening.


#19

Living near silicon valley I find this to be true as well. Socialthinking was developed near Silicon Valley where many of these people have kids…

See: Social Thinking Product List

It’s worth looking through these resources which are widely used in our school systems in SF Bayarea


#20

Hi wolverdude,

Thanks much for clarifying Sacasas’ argument in making the distinction between Jaron Lanier’s argument and Wendell Berry’s. Your distinction seems correct to me and helps clear my thinking about the central issue - as Sacasas put it - “What sort of discourse do they [social media platforms] encourage or discourage? What kind of political subjectivity emerges from the habitual use of social media?” I would add wider questions to these such as “What types of human beings are we being molded into by technologically-based social media?”

Sacasas, like Berry, focuses on the “limits appropriate to the human condition.” According to Berry, these limits can enhance the “fulllness of relationship and meaning.” In this context, the point of the Lanier examples was to provide concrete instances of what that fullness of relationship might look like such as the discovery of an inner voice. The example suggests respect for our own uniqueness as a starting point for real relationships. The limitations Berry refers to are those human characteristics such as moral insight, imaginative range, creative discoveries and related human abilities that flourish best when our human limits are respected, when we are in our least “machine-like” state, if I might put it that way.

One of Sacasas’ major points is that we refuse to question our submission to management by digital tools. The type of tech backlash he questions could be satisfied with a “humane” facelift over fundamentallly inhuman tools. The existence of this backlash, along with the current remediatory efforts, may in fact reveal the depth of our implicit commitment to growing inhumanity.

The current critiques and reform efforts stand completely within the technological paradigm that has dominated human progress for the past several centuries. Such efforts at reform may strengthen the underlying inhumanity of technology by providing assurance that the industry is truly striving to make it more human, a word which necessarily is left in a vague and undefined state. My contention, along with Sacasas’, is that we need to think more deeply about what humanity means whether it is through Lanier’s examples of truly personal engagement or Berry’s invocation of the great artistic traditions, which he characterizes in his inimitable way as follows, “We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything.” (Faustian Economics). Sometimes that may involve technology, but often not.

While I understand the difference between the viewpoints of Berry and Lanier, I tend to see both as encompassed in a larger viewpoint that questions technology in terms of its acceptable contribution to human flourishing. Lanier represents a more individualist method of extending our humanity while Berry emphasizes the social dimension. Sacasas is not simply endorsing Berry but using him as a example of the type of critique that could be made, but that he does not see being made by organizations such as HumaneTech, about which he says, “The critique emanates from within the system, assumes the overall beneficence of the system, and serves only to maximize the system’s power and efficiency by working out its bugs.” While this may be the only practical way to proceed, it should be recognized as such.


#21

I’m not so sure whether we can, or wish to, have the same impact when we either have face-to-face interactions or type something on a device.

Many people have resorted to spending much more time texting than speaking, because it gives them more time to think and edit their thoughts, and control their emotions.

As to social media, I admit I am not an expert, lacking sufficient exposure, but it seems to me from what I’ve seen that many people create a voice for themselves and tend to post following a style that they define as truly representing them.

A great and wise writer who knows himself/herself well will be more likely to properly and accurately define that voice; for most of us, that voice can only be identified through feedback from close friends, teachers, mentors, psychologists, family members, etc who are more able to see contrasts and contradictions.

As you pointed out, knowing ourselves is key, failing which the image of our subconscious formed by social media engines - and our “followers” - will be biased, or appear filled with contradictions.

This reminds me of one type of personality tests, where through asking many seemingly independent questions, the test is able to determine that the subject has been trying hard to portray himself/herself as “ideal” in his/her eyes.

The question therefore is, before we seek to determine the social good of social media, “are we able to be true to ourselves in the digital realm, to communicate and share without second thoughts about our audience?”. Or is the pressure of knowing we will be read by many forcing us to control and fabricate?

Here are two related texts on the subject:

The second text posits that there’s nothing more “real” in face-to-face interactions than in digital representations of ourselves. Both are equally valid, the author says. I find this thinking distasteful, since the author attributes the contradictions to an attention to different audiences, and appears to condone lying: “We sometimes lie when we call sick while we just don’t want to get to work”. Is that the best justification there is for having a “dual identity?”

I tend to believe the pressure to “perform” is high for most, and that we fear our inadequacies. Maybe I’m wrong.


#22

Are you saying that the technological paradigm began with the Industrial Revolution? Just want to clarify. If so, I agree. The predominant metaphor at that time was that of the watchmaker, i.e., a being who uses his skill and knowledge to create a perfectly working object.

Agree here. This brings up the old argument of changing the system from within: can it be done, or are we fooling ourselves? The more complex and ubiquitous, the more difficult to change. At some point, our minds become part of the operating system and help it run.

There is a wonderful TED talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability in which she defines courage as the ability to tell the true story of ourselves.


#23

Another aspect of social media that is well worth considering: any “respectable” (in the sense of being business-savvy, not necessarily human-friendly) website or app leverages recommender systems, whereby user preferences, inclinations or biases are mined to deliver content that is most likely to appeal to their attention.

Let’s assume for a moment that somehow (for conscious, or unconscious reasons) your digital persona is distinct from your (original, i.e. if social media did not exist) persona. My previous post argued that this may well be the case for most, but that’s not the point here.

Then, you will be served with content that most appeals to your digital persona, thereby reinforcing its “values”. Taken to the extreme, if you are interpreted as having far-right values, the system will push content that corroborates such views or even radicalizes you even more. Your attention may be called to communities whose goals associate with far-right values. All this contributes to making you feel good about your views and gives you plenty of opportunities to “belong”, not to society as a whole, but to communities who fully embrace such views.

Sorry that I took the example of far-right and describing it as an evil: while it is for most, it is objectively just a model of thought.

In the real world, exposing your thoughts expose you to feedback from random interactions that may be so well informed that you will change your view point, or at least moderate it.

Influencers on social media have not gone through a thorough process whereby their rationality and reliance on objectivity could have been demonstrated. Hence a social media society is turning into a democratization of influences, where the key criterion is the popularity, not the erudition, of the influencer. In a way, we tend to follow influencers because they are popular, not because they are right. This is a hugely drastic change to how opinions are formed: from the informed, educated and structured; to the most pleasing, popular, and demagogue.

If you had a choice, financial considerations aside, between sending your kid to Harvard or letting him understand the world through the lens of social media influencers for a couple of years, what would you do?

This long aparte on education brings me to this: from a world where opinions were discussed and dissected based on facts and reason, we have come to a world where anyone’s most crude opinions are massively corroborated by social media, whose purpose (so that it can derive higher profits) is to validate your thoughts by seeking to deliver content that pleases you.

Take as an instance that Zuckerberg is not very keen on established media, whose profession is (or should be, at least) to portray facts and provide rational analyses.

Facebook (not to mention others) started out as an innocent project. Now as it grew powerful and sophisticated, it is trying to justify its existence as “bringing people together”. The question is “does it bring similarly flawed people in like-minded communities where their flaws are now extolled as virtues?” Shouldn’t instead these flaws be corrected or at least contrasted with content that go against their preferences?

Social media recommender systems can be compared to e-commerce recommender systems. Why would you recommend a yellow dress to someone who obviously hates yellow? Or should you try to change her tastes? This is something social media should do, but again, it works better for them if they push content that go along your preferred dimensions.

Not that they manually define these dimensions in an evil way: to follow on our earlier example, far-right tendencies may be learnt as a latent dimension, more so than “I’m interested in discussions on whether far-right or more left-leaning views are justified.” This is just an evil side of the automated nature of machine learning: individuals may be evaluated on their views, rather than their concerns.


#24

@Georges nothing like being challenged with things we might not normally reach out to. Like being trapped in a car with the only radio station that comes in tune, or a chatty airline passenger that we can’t turn off… we are not given these opportunities anymore and those experiences are the buds of diversity and tolerance.

I honestly think we should just force ourselves to listen to or hang out with people we totally disagree with once in a while to create those chance meetings social media displaces.


#25

@healthyswimmer : fully agree, and technology, in addition but not in replacement of real-world interactions, also affords us tremendous means to achieve that - provided it is not in control of what content we’ll be mostly exposed to.


#27

Hi patm,

Thanks for your replies. The technological paradigm I’m talking about is the broad attitude that emerged over the last 200 years that every problem has a technical solution. In the context of CHT, and as a professional web developer for 25 years, I’m trying to define those features of my users’ humanity that my designs can impact positively or negatively. Just talking vaguely about preventing attention erosion or avoiding hijacking user minds doesn’t seem to be much to go by, so I was hoping we could look at issues such as those raised by Dan Rubin about how actual human relationships can built online and what technologies could enhance that process or if they must remain superficial and that’s OK because that’s all the technology is capable of given the profit objectives of the social media companies.

I’m basically agreeing with the critique made by Sacasas in his New Atlantic article referenced above: The Tech Backlash We Really Need. The argument he is making is that, while interesting and praiseworthy in terms of its stated goals, the CHT initiative doesn’t really address the root issues, “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” (Sacasas)The assumption is that we have a basic understanding of these without having to spell it out in detail. I started this section to see if these questions could be addressed.

As to changing the system from within, we could start by identifying the actual assumptions behind the project, one of which is that the technology behind social media is basically “good”, meaning not inherently anti-human, but it is often being used wrongly. What I’m trying to do is draw a line between human and anti-human based on my understanding of the human good. But there is a problem with defining “human” in meaningful terms, “Liberal democracy professes a fundamental neutrality regarding competing visions of the good life, offering instead to protect basic human rights while creating the context for individuals to flourish with maximal freedom. In the space created by this professed neutrality, modern technology has flourished, unchecked by a robust and thick understanding of human flourishing.”

That “robust and thick understanding” seems lacking in the tech community so I’m asking what is the criteria that we can define so that we can make real progress toward a more human experience or if the inherent momentum of technology makes it anti-human in certain fundamental ways that can only be compensated by temporarily moving away from it and enjoying other things such as the sky, the ocean and a few close friends. As you say, we are part of the operating system so our minds can only function within a tight set of restrictions when working with the technology. What are these restrictions doing to our humanity? And is it worthwhile exploring that?

By the way, I’m a big fan of Brene Brown and I loved her TED talk. That’s my idea of humanity.


Changing community Mission Statement for a clearer, more manageable scope
#28

I think you make a number of excellent points, particularly, “relationship are always corrupted or distorted when a third party manipulates for that third party’s benefit.” So what if the social media platform was owned by the users? I see two immediate consequences: 1) Some users might try to exploit other users just as they do in the real world but there would be hard to protect against because of no central source of responsibility; 2) Without strong corporate backing, the platform would languish because no one would take responsibility for it.

Therefore the owners of the platform need to make enough profit to maintain the usability of the platform. They could follow a subscription model and this would be most likely to be successful if it could appeal to particular interest groups who would be willing to pay for quality interactions that are not exploitative with others who shared the same interests. Many would likely be willing to pay just to get rid of the trolls if there could be a way to escape them.

Just like we try to form a circle of quality around ourselves in the real world, could we find way to do the same online? If the selection process was driven by human decisions rather than algorithms, the quality could be constantly enhanced because it would grow through experience and interaction rather than keywords. The real problem is that we have been very effectively trained to use all online interactions as resources to be exploited for a number of motivations, not all of which are monetary.

It seems like its the same problem we face in the offline world. What are the social tools we use to build up our humanity, to govern ourselves so that we build the solidarity we inherently long for.


#29

@boydcster

My take on the question you raise about starting by defining what makes us human and what “we” mean in the first place is that, unless you want to go all philosophical and attempt to spell it out in absolute terms, it’s much more approachable to achieve that by way of contrasts and yes/no questions.

We all agree that if there were a universally accepted definition of what makes us human in absolute terms, we would in any case have to accept that technology cannot entirely reflect it and help it prosper, as it is both a reduction of complex aspects to a finite number of features and an endeavor that relies on profit-driven interests (which makes for necessary compromises).

If instead, we go by way of contrasts (as many in the humane tech community do), we can easily contrast products (not necessarily “solutions”, as that would imply there was a problem to be addressed in the first place) offered by technology, and on the other hand, their equivalent in the non-digital world.

Take three examples:

Netflix: through recommender systems, Netflix offers users personalized advice on movies they will likely enjoy, be they blockbusters or indie movies. In the real world, you would need to know people with an incredible knowledge of tens of thousands of movies to provide you with a similar experience. On the other hand, Netflix is unlikely to suggest you movies outside your perceived preferences, so it doesn’t help you grow and diversify your interests, but that’s still something you can do through real-world interactions and recommendations.

Netflix follows an approach that emulates the real-world, but goes beyond its limitations. No real conflict here as far as our humanity is concerned.

Uber: We all know the business model and its advantages. A positive one is that it encourages drivers to be courteous as it may impact their ratings. A negative one is that in some countries, regular taxi drivers resent the competition from Uber drivers who unlike them did not have to go through a thorough registration process, nor foot high upfront costs. Such issues should be resolved by regulators, so there’s a due process in place to arbiter. Another possible negative aspect is the exploitation of drivers, who only take home a limited pay despite many, many hours at the wheel. But again, that’s just another aspect of a capitalistic society, and something regulators can scrutinize.

Does Uber change/negatively affect our humanity? Not really. It’s just a product that introduces more - if not unfair - competition.

Finally, our favorite subject of discussion: Facebook. I wrote enough on this thread about the social media giant. The contrast here is very, very significant. One may argue that nothing precludes our humanity from evolving - albeit at an unprecedented and frenetic pace - and “integrating” our new digital habits (I won’t say addictions). Maybe I’m wrong, but the way I see it is, we are at a unique point of history where our humanity (again, without defining it in absolute terms) is undergoing TREMENDOUS changes on a global scale and all of this has been happening within a mere decade or so.

The whole point of the CHT initiative - again, that’s my view only - is to rein in this rapid evolution, or at least to make it clear to anyone what we’re going through and take responsibility for the consequences.

I know it’s cliche, but doesn’t it freak you out to watch people on the street, and notice that at least 80% are holding their phones? Is that “human”? Or has humanity over the past centuries craved for a device they could hold on to 16 hours a day?

Taking another - very stupid example - let’s say 51% of the population gets on crack and crack is legalized. Would you then say “Access to crack should be a human right?”

The point of this stupid example is, it’s not good enough to just state that technology is what it is, what we make of it reflects our human nature, so let’s just live with it. There’s a urgent need for awareness, and from my experience discussing the subject with many people outside this community, they have no care in the world.