Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government



Res Publica

August 2015

by Ivan Larson

Albert Einstein warned us that “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” His words were spoken when the atom bomb had just wrought horrific destruction, spreading fire, plague, and death upon tens of thousands of people and was about to threaten the very existence of the human race.Yet the warning rings even truer today.

Consider the marvels we have achieved by advancing technology.Not only can I carry in my pocket access to a secure vault of money and the means to talk to anyone I know, but I can also carry in it access to the entire sum of human knowledge. These wonders are coming at an ever faster pace; consider how vastly superior today’s $200 iPhone is to the first flip phone that 25 years ago cost $3000. Technology is ever rushing forward, building on itself faster thanwe can reflect on its proper use.

But with new tools come new dangers. In Plato’s Phaedrus, there’s a tale of the pharaoh’s initial encounter with writing. The pharaoh condemns it, arguing that it would make his people stop relying on their memory. That part of them would atrophy as they rely on writings to store the information. Moreover, the writings would not convey the whole truth. A person telling a tale can be asked to elaborate on details, but a stone carving cannot. Writings leave people with a shadow of the real thing. As people seek to emulate the written concept, they become shadows of shadows. Plato’s insight is fascinating. Its truth is reflected across popular culture today, with people yearning to have storybook lives matching what they read of, see on TV, and gain from other artificial media. Technology can have great benefits, but danger lurks as well.

Perhaps the scariest possibility lies in neuroscience. Our growing understanding of the human brain is almost miraculous; we have given sight to those born blind and built artificial replacement limbs that connect to the body’s neurons. As our knowledge of the brain grows,we could soon build a brain chip to access the internet. Instead of asking your phone for the capital of Botswana, merely thinking the question manner would summon the instant answer of “Gaborone” directly into your thoughts. The iPhone would be a relic.

But do you really want that chip in your brain? With Facebook running psychological experiments on users without their knowledge and Google, Microsoft, and the NSA collecting all our metadata, the brain with a chip isn’t private anymore. You would think your thoughts knowing that they could become public. And access can often run both ways: imagine the dangers if that chip is hacked. The hacker could feed an endless stream of nightmares directly into your mind, or just warp your perception of reality in subtle ways. Yet, science marches ever forward.

But it won’t take hacking for the brain chip to destroy our thinking. If our brain gets access to cloud storage and has the capacity to store its own information on the cloud, what happens to that gray matter? Brain functions develop through practice and active use, much like our muscles.If we aren’t using them to remember, our brains will fail when asked to analyze the world around us. Analysis is being able to call up different bits of information and seeing how they fit together. When that information is stored separately in the cloud, the very essence of thinking is in peril.The more we expect technology to provide the answer, the dumber we let ourselves become.

Whatever our apprehensions of such technology, they fade with each new generation. Today, there are toddlers learning to use a touchscreen before they can walk. To them, the chip would be the next logical step, a way to overcome all the inconveniences of having to give physical inputs to an external device. Earlier generations will look stuck in the past, unable to adapt to a new world. Get a brain chip, or get left behind.

The question we face is not of whether neural internet chips will be built. Trying to stem the rise of science would be impossible. Instead,the question we face is how to adapt, and how to use new technology properly. No doubt, computers interfacing with the human brain can help heal people with brain damage. Downloading memories might help us in emergency situations like learning CPR on the spot to save a life. But controlling its dangers presents a more immense challenge.

As we push the limits of our minds, we threaten the core of human worth. If a man can be hacked as easily as his laptop, is he still a rational, independent being deserving of some inherent human worth? If we can enjoy a vacation skiing in the Alps by downloading a memory can we still value truth? Memory is an essential component of our identity. If our memory cannot be trusted as true, then we cannot hold anything as fact.Truth is lost. No discoveries of science have posed such a threat as the oncoming advancements  in neuroscience.

If we fail to control this technology properly, a dark road lies ahead.In Star Trek: The Next Generation, humanity encounters the Borg, an alien race that long ago accepted a future as cyborgs, linked as one mind by their implants. The Borg don’t feel. Their spaceships are cold, dreary cubes of death. The Borg care for nothing but the assimilation of more peoples into their collective mind. Worst of all, they cannot grasp how far they have fallen.If we don’t manage new technology properly, we could face the same fate.

Growing technology makes us question who we are as human beings, and who we will become.The struggle for the human soul is waiting just a few years down the road.But who needs a soul? Just stay up to date with the latest Apple products instead.