The Inhumanity of Smart Technology

I’m allergic to hyperbole. That said, Evgeny Morozov identifies one of the most important challenges we face in the coming years:

“There are many contexts in which smart technologies are unambiguously useful and even lifesaving. Smart belts that monitor the balance of the elderly and smart carpets that detect falls seem to fall in this category. The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.

It’s great when the things around us run smoothly, but it’s even better when they don’t do so by default. That, after all, is how we gain the space to make decisions—many of them undoubtedly wrongheaded—and, through trial and error, to mature into responsible adults, tolerant of compromise and complexity.”

Exactly right.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant observed. Corollary to keep in mind: If a straight thing is made, it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.

What is the endgame of the trajectory of innovation that is determined to eliminate human error, deviance, and folly? In every field of human endeavor — whether it be industry, medicine, education, governance — technological innovation reduces human involvement, thought, and action in the name of precision, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, targets what he has called “solutionism,” the temptation, I take it without having read the book yet, to view the Internet as the potential solution to every conceivable problem. I’m tempted to suggest for Morozov the target of his next book: eliminationism — the progressive elimination of human thought and action wherever possible. Life will increasingly consist of automated processes, actions, and interactions that will envelope and frame the human and render the human superfluous. Worse yet, insofar as the human is ultimately the root of our inconveniences and our problems, solutionism’s ultimate trajectory must lead to eliminationism.

There are tragic associations haunting that last formulation, so let me be clear. It is not (necessarily) the elimination of human beings that I’m worried about; it is the elimination of our humanity. The fear — and why not, let’s embrace its most popular cultural icon — is that we will be rendered zombies: alive but not living, stripped of the possibility for error, risk, failure, triumph, joy, redemption, and much of what renders our lives tragically, gloriously meaningful.

Albert Borgmann had it right. We must distinguish between “trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.” In the former category, Borgmann has in mind troubles on the order of car accidents and cancer.  By “accepting them in practice,” Borgmann means that at the personal level we must cope with such tragedies when they strike. But these are troubles that we oppose in principle, and so we seek cures for cancer and improved highway safety.

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Against these, Borgmann opposes troubles that we also accept in practice, but ought to accept in principle as well. Here the examples are preparation of a meal and hiking a mountain.  These sorts of troubles, sometimes not without their real dangers, could be opposed in principle — never prepare meals at home, never hike — but such avoidance would also prevent us from experiencing their attendant joys and satisfactions. If we seek to remove all trouble or risk from our lives; if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease; if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life; then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives — that, in fact, make our lives fully human.

Huxley had it right, too:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

In claiming the right to be unhappy, the Savage was claiming the right to a fully human existence. It is a right we must take increasing care to safeguard against our own fascination with the promises of technology.