Staring into the Mirror: Surging Technology and the Essential Self

Staring into the Mirror: Surging Technology and Humanity

Staring into the Mirror, She Wonders….

Photography by: Richard Avedon

Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognizable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza?”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Milan Kundera

Concerns about the Exponential Advances in Technology

In recent years, a growing number of observers have voiced their concerns about the huge leaps that have been made in the area of scientific knowledge, as well as about the exponential advances that either have been achieved or are said to be forthcoming in the related, but usually distinct field of technology. In particular, there has been an increasing sense of alarm that technological advances have not only changed how we carry on with everyday life, but that the very nature of our sense of humanity is in the process of being irrevocably changed by those ongoing advances.

According to a number of writers and academics, most people just don’t pay enough attention to what they perceive to be crucial issues associated with the ever-accelerating pace of technological development, tending instead to think of it as a powerful substratum in our lives, but moving along at a glacial pace. In this way, commentators suggest that we’ve been acting like sleep-walkers, moving somnabulistically through a world of rote perceptions in the face of rapidly surging technological change. We have failed to face up to the grave implications of what is happening. We are sleepwalking and need to wake up. This way of thinking argues that human life is being so radically transformed that our very essence as human beings is under seige; at some point our very ability to recognize who we our, our sense of “self” or “identity, ” will be threatened and challenged.

Therefore, a failure to become more acutely aware of some of these implications of technological advances will leave us conducting our lives as though we aren’t constrained by the crucial social demands of “The Law of Holes.” “The Law of Holes” is one of life’s more important golden rules for survival, declaring that when you find that you’re in a hole, quit digging!

The Genius of Humanity: The Capacity to Withstand Radical Challenges

Some observers, on the other hand, state that even the most radically transformative technologies have not had the indomitable impact we might have anticipated. The “electronification” of everyday life that has taken place over the last few decades has not fundamentally changed the manner in which we relate to each other: feelings of love, envy, kindness, anxiety, hatred, ambition, bitterness, and joy still appear to have a remarkable resemblance to the emotions people had forty or fifty years ago. Ray Tallis points out that, “The low-grade bitchiness of office politics may be conducted more efficiently by email, but its essential character hasn’t changed. Teenagers communicating by mobile phones and texts and chat rooms and webcams still seem more like teenagers than nodes in an electronic network. I have to admit a little concern at what we might call the “e-ttenuation” of life, whereby people find it increasingly difficult to be here now rather than dissipating themselves into an endless electronic elsewhere; but inner absence…is not entirely new, even if it is now electronically orchestrated. It just becomes more publicly visible….Of course, people are worried about more invasive innovations; in particular, the direct transformation of the human body. And this is where the gradualness of change is important, because as individuals we have a track record of coping with such changes without falling apart or losing our sense of self entirely. After all, we have all been engaged all our lives in creating a stable sense of our identity out of whatever is thrown at us.

Tallis contends that humans are unique among the animals in having a coherent sense of self, which begins with our appropriating our own bodies as our own. This is our most pivotal human achievement, the transformation of our pre-personal bodies into the foundation of our personal identity. From a dispassionate perspective, the bodies beneath our skin are not terribly human; indeed, they are less human than our human technologies. Accordingly, he maintains that there is very little in our purely organic bodies that we could speak of as a self or a me.

Tallis summarizes his somewhat more optimistic approach to thinking about the challenges that are inherent in an increasingly technological society, explaining his belief that:

“At the root of humanity is…the sense that ‘I am this'; our appropriation of our own bodies as persons who participate in a collective culture. Even at a bodily level, this intuition withstands quite radical changes. And by this I don’t just mean coping with a wooden leg or a heart transplant, or being able to reassume ourselves and our responsibilities each morning when we wake up or when we come round from a knock-out blow. I mean something more fundamental – namely, normal development. We grow from something about a foot long and weighing about 7 pounds, to something about 6 foot long and weighing about 150 pounds, and for the greater part of that period we feel that we are the same thing. We assimilate these changes into an evolving and continuous sense of our own identity.

This is possible because change happens gradually and because it happens to all of us. Gradualness ensures continuity of memory alongside an imperceptible change in our bodies and the configuration of the world in which we live. That is why my earlier reassurances emphasised the gradualness of technological advance. If I look at myself objectively, I see that I am the remote descendent of the 10-year-old I once was, and yet my metamorphosis is quite unlike that of Kafka’s man who turns into a beetle. My dramatic personal growth and development is neither sudden nor solitary; and this will also be true of the changes that take place in human identity in the world of changing technologies.

Yes, we shall change; but the essence of human identity lies in this continuing self-redefinition. And if we remember that our identity and our freedom lie in the intersection between our impersonal but unique bodies and our personal individual memories and shared cultural awareness, it is difficult to worry about the erosion of either our identity or our freedom by technological advance.

If, as I believe, the distinctive genius of humanity is to establish an identity which lies at an ever-increasing distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and dominated by experiences which are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare: bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation or spraying with pesticides). Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or as a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Self-transformation is the essence of humanity, and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part, and from which we are apart.

In short, do not be afraid.”

Technology: Modern Times

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One Response to “Staring into the Mirror: Surging Technology and the Essential Self”

  1. barbara Says:

    I have just discovered your blog. Your current essay is thought -provoking, yes, one that pushed my reluctant mind into actually thinking. I shall be back for more.


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