Technology and Consciousness

Throughout philosophical discussions concerning technology the concept of “human nature,” and its influence, are often referenced. Upon examining consciousness within a technological context the idea of a loss of humanity or individuality continually arises. Curiously, this seems to imply something very strange – specifically that the major trends of human nature are ultimately leading to its own demise. The abstraction of human characteristics and qualities, such as talent and emotion, which emerges from the influence of human nature on technology, causes a reasonable sense of fear and unnaturalness in most people. It’s clear and obvious that the world is rapidly changing in a way that history has never felt before. Socially, environmentally, and even spiritually, humankind is experiencing a metamorphosis. Issues that have stirred the minds of fanatics and dreamers for centuries are finally coming to a boil. Despite this, we may find consolation in the idea that perhaps human beings are simply a stepping-stone in the bigger picture, and that quality which we refer to as ‘humanity,’ actually derives from the whole of the cosmos and will be survived regardless of the fate of the 46 chromosomed machines that claim it as their exclusive birthright.

The twenty-first century is understood to be a pivotal moment in the history of humankind. Through technology human nature is being altered and we begin to face issues that never before existed. In a talk given by Sir Martin Rees, it is argued that this may be our last century on Earth (1). Discussing the immense future lying ahead of us, Rees explains that complexity and intelligence have far to go even here still on earth, not to mention into the depths of space. A main tenet of his argument entails that for the first time humans are able to materially change themselves, and the planet on a global scale. With the arrival of the internet, complexity and abundance of information has sky-rocketed. Slowly, digital information is becoming more important than material things (consider cash versus electronic banking, etc.). Perhaps this transition is also affecting humanity itself. Our own ability, and desire, to change ourselves may in the end result in the loss of ourselves. Bioengineering and bionics aside, I assert that most vital role will be played by the systems we create in this ‘infinite game.’ Humanity itself is based on information systems, in various regards. Our physical selves result from genetic information. Our minds, our consciousness, are all essentially information processed through a system. Everything that defines humanity seems to be compatible.

Interestingly enough, there is already a website that is devoted to “the putative future process of copying one’s mind from the natural substrate of the brain into an artificial one, manufactured by humans.” “The Mind Uploading Webpage, (2)” also details a list of various issues and questions that seem to arise from the concept, including personal identities, brain enhancements, and artificial realities. What future does a website like this promise in the developing context of web 3.0 and beyond? Imagine once something like this invades our everyday lifestyle – the explicit and intentional outsourcing of the human brains. The reason why I have focused so much on this mental outsourcing and expansion of humanity is because it points to result in something even more complex than the sum of its parts. The various digital systems that humanity has begun to embrace, interconnected within a system itself (which will ultimately be a descendant of today’s internet), will itself eventually develop into a conscious, sentiment being. As described in an article from the New York Times by Jim Holt, something as simple as a rock may “be viewed as an all-purpose information processor.”

I recently enjoyed a cartoon strip by Scott Adams that maintains great relevance to the topic (3). Its title, “Supreme Being: Our Future, Not Our Origin,” accurately describes its argument. Its initial four slides explain how complex things result from the combination of simpler, less capable components. Its sixth slide then says: “What if ‘God,’ is the consciousness that will be created when enough of us are connected by the internet?!!” Interestingly, I feel that this idea generally pointing in the right direction. A ubiquitous, unseen entity that connects everything, huh. Not that I’m trying to bring up a theological argument (perhaps God does exist, and what the cartoon refers to would simply be a manifestation of such), but the idea does seem remarkable.

This post was originally written for my first blog that has since been discontinued.