A Synthetic Life

September Long

November 10, 2016

“Projects undreamed-of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants; forces terrific and devastating will be in their hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache,their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.” -Winston S. Churchill

The New York Times recently published an article about the current prominence of automated journalism. The piece discusses how the use of algorithms to create news stories has become a more advanced and common practice in writing; everything from a score report for a baseball game to whole books which can be researched and written by programed algorithmic systems. The author of the article, Shelley Podolny, reflects on the negative effects this advancement and technology in general has had on the integrity of humanity: “Our phones can speak to us (just as a human would). Our home appliances can take commands (just as a human would). Our cars will be able to drive themselves (just as a human would). What does ‘human’ even mean?” (NY Times, 2015) Podolny ends the article with a daunting reflection: “Then again, who has time to think about that when there’s so much information to absorb every day? After all, we’re only human.” (NY Times, 2015)

These questions posed by Podolny touch upon the larger issue of technology’s imposing role in our daily lives. We see the effects of technology and science everywhere, and in many ways, it has become our tyrannical master rather than a helpful servant. The most prevalent example of this intrusion is the use of smartphones. From the moment we rise to meet the day to our last actions before we fall asleep at night, technology is our malevolent companion. The alarm on our phones commands us to wake in the morning, and by instantaneous compulsion, we reach for the device to remind us of our schedule for the day. We use our phones to keep ourselves updated on the lives of close friends and distant acquaintances alike through social media, and we get our news from sound bites and short articles (perhaps written by programmed machines). Smartphones, more than any other kind of technological device, have certainly made nearly every corner of human life more “convenient,” but have they made us better? We accept progress in technology as a good thing, as a sign of evolving human ingenuity and positive advancement, but we rarely ever consider if they are in fact making us more or less human. While the creation of mobile devices has been relatively recent, these questions concerning the effects of technology on human nature have existed long before the invention of the smartphone.

In 1931, Sir Winston S. Churchill published an essay entitled “Fifty Years Hence.” In this piece Churchill reflected upon the advancement of technology and attempted to predict what Western civilization would look like in the future if this progress were left unmoderated. Churchill observed then what we would now consider to be outdated devices. He wrote about the invention of telephones and television and the way they would influence human interaction and relationships. He also discussed the advancements of science in the fields of weaponry and the impending danger which lurked behind the devices described as most progressive and efficient. Churchill saw the progression of science and technology as an obviously useful good for humanity, if monitored and properly directed. This assertion stemmed from his understanding that there were important questions which science could never comprehend or answer; therefore any technological advancement which intruded upon human affairs must be used with caution and moderated with good moral sense. Churchill perceived science and technology to be useful yet powerful: useful enough to make our lives more efficient and convenient, powerful enough to alter what makes us human beings.

Looking back now, it is clear to see that Churchill’s concerns were indeed valid. Technology has infiltrated every sector of an individual’s life, nearly to the point of absolute reliance. However, we do not only rely on technology just for the sake of convenience. In many ways technology has created barriers which have changed the way we think, speak, and act as human beings. For example, cell phones, and more specifically texting, have greatly changed the expectations and etiquette for relationships. Not even two decades ago, the normal process for dating was strikingly different. It is a permissible and even welcomed notion among many people that asking someone out on a date via text message is acceptable. The 21st Century gentleman no longer has to gain enough courage to approach the lady or to pick up the phone and call. In fact, for many this would be rendered as strange or old-fashioned. Instead, the modern man with the full power of convenient technology merely has to type a text and send it. Thus with a push of button what would have previously been an exhibition of genuine human courage is diluted and compressed into a few words on a screen. This may seem like an insignificant matter now, but little by little, upgrade by upgrade, we consent to giving away a part of our humanity.With every article that we read that was written by a machine and with every moment we spend checking social media instead of engaging in the real world, we become a little less human.

Churchill’s depiction of the future may have been frighteningly accurate, but it was not hopeless. Churchill warned against the advances of science and technology, not because he thought it an absolute evil, but because he knew that science could only understand and serve the material world. Science and technology can offer many explanations for the workings of human life and can make life certainly more convenient, but as Churchill warned, it cannot tell us why we are here or what we ought to live for: “No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” (Churchill, 1931) Algorithms may be able to create articles indistinguishable from human journalism, but can it replace the emotion, passion, and ingenuity poured into works by writers who dedicate their time and talent to reporting? Our smartphones may make our lives easier, but do they make them more enriched? These are questions worth considering, these are questions which cause us to contemplate what it means to truly be a human being