There is a powerful irony in the fact that the novelty of modern technology, of both Internet and genetic engineering varieties, has given rise to concerns exponentially matching the omnipresence of them. More exactly, there appears to be a “runaway train” mentality gripping mankind, and not for the first time. The question asked with increasing frequency is what precisely are we doing to ourselves, and the question is voiced as we feverishly continue doing it.
There can be no real answer, of course, simply because the nature of being human is a thing too fluid to be properly identified in a way satisfactory to those seeking answers. On one hand, great concern is expressed over the potential for true human contact to vanish, due to a reliance on the virtual and a subsequent redefinition; on the other, genetic manipulation takes such worries into darker territory, as it is feared that the meaning of human existence must be sacrificed on even deeper levels, when we elect to alter human mechanisms of physical being and thinking. What is most extraordinary in this sea of anguish, however, is its ignoring of fundamental qualities of humanness no machine may eviscerate: baseness and self-aggrandizement. The sadder reality is that humanity cannot be diminished by technology because its inherent worth, in the past and today, is of itself a debatable attribute. More precisely: if humanity loses its essence through technology, the technology is then only emphasizing a more regrettable essence.
As noted, concern regarding humanity’s embracing of technology that may undermine humanity itself is rampant. It also takes a wide range of both forms and degrees of gravity. For example, Susan Greenfield – perhaps optimistically – reflects the widespread feeling that concern over technology as dehumanizing is misplaced, simply because the human adapts in ways that protects what is essential the integrity of being human: “If the environment is changing in an unprecedented way, then the changes too will be unprecedented” (Schmemann). People will, she believes, maintain their core humanity because they will evolve to shape the technology of the Internet to do so. That there are “bumps” in the road is inevitable, for we are today obligated to reexamine traditional ideas of what knowledge is and how it is pertinent to us. More intrinsically worrying is the human ability to engineer traits. Bill McKibben is unequivocal in his distress over, not how communication technologies are eroding individual identities, but in how genetic engineering will invariably encourage “safe” programming which eliminates vital uncertainties in human development. The parent who orders genetic construction in their unborn child, he affirms, robs the child of any possibility of comprehending their own life (McKibben). In the meantime, also as noted, Facebook gathers millions of new users daily, and those same users scan Internet headlines for breakthroughs in identifying specific genetic codes subject to alteration.
If these concerns are understandable, they are also highly suspect, in that they uniformly ignore essential components of what “being human” means, insofar as human history has provided some consistency of definition. More to the point, the articles bemoaning the potential horrors of technology seem to reflect an inflexible perception of something irrefutably “noble” as being threatened, when humanity’s history more clearly indicates a presence or thing by no means worthy of preservation at all cost. This viewpoint is by no means merely a cynical response to the concerns, but one committed to determining the true value of the source of the unease. It is, in fact, extraordinary that the experts writing on the subject invariably assume that something of inestimable value – the quality of humanness – may be the most sacred of all elements known to humanity. This occurs even as these same experts struggle to identify the quality, typically relying on an agreed-upon sense that it is a spirit of individuality that is, through no avenues anyone may properly trace, essentially good or fine.
This is suspect because it refuses to admit to its more valid agenda, which is the protection of the self. That is to say, the human self is theoretically elevated in order to justify the need to protect, when there is as much potential for bad or wrong within it as there is for good. We celebrate human individuality, not because it is of itself an instrument for good, but because it is ours. Consequently, it is difficult to trust concerns over threats to it when the entity itself is obfuscated to add ethical weight to the argument. This is not to imply that, as humanity’s history is a relatively bleak affair of violence and unconscionable wrong, there is little point to worrying over risks to it. Rather, what is sought here is an honesty that must serve humanity itself. It is fine for a critic, for example, to assert that Facebook is dehumanizing real human relations, but that same critic is then obligated to confront how human relations are conducted regardless. Obfuscating the many flaws of humanity in no way works to encourage a protection of it, and this is further reinforced by considering both Internet and genetic manipulations. In other words, the thing worried about, as stated earlier, is making these choices. If, then, a long-cherished idea of human relations is lost, then that is what the humans in question seem to require. If, then, the child is genetically engineered, the parents are not violating a basic human imperative; they are reinforcing it. If, in fact, we meet the cyborg and he is us, then he always was, and we were doing nothing for many centuries bu defining ourselves only as far as the technology placed limits around us.
As the articles cited note, it is a reality that technological innovations of the past generated the same arguments heard today. From the printing press to the cell phone, it seems humanity whispers frantically to itself as to what it is doing to itself. The point, however, is that, in every instance, the technology is embraced, and it may be argued that nothing better defines humanity than this. Genetic manipulation and the Internet, it is acknowledged, transcend past breakthroughs in terms of impact; this is, of course, why the debate rages as it does. Nonetheless, there remains the inappropriate insistence on the protection of the human essence even as that essence hurries to dismiss such grandiose associations. We are what we choose to do, certainly more so than any ineffable concept of a unique self. To decry any technology as dehumanizing is to completely ignore the less attractive, and likely more valid, reality of the humanity that seizes upon it. If technology diminishes the human essence and this causes distress, we may not blame the technology, but only the essence we never truly comprehended.
McKibben, Bill. “The Posthuman Condition.” From “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.” Harper’s Magazine, April 2003: 15-19.
Schmemann, Serge. “Are We Becoming Cyborgs?” New York Times 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Dec. 2012 [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/opinion/global/maria-popova-evgeny- morozov-susan-greenfield-are-we-becoming-cyborgs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0]