Our Game-Ending Love Affair With Technology

Despite their momentum and efficiency, civilizations have always been incredibly naïve when it came to envisioning their future.  There was always good food for thought, and plenty of incentive to plan for the immediate next day.  However, when it came to tackling the bigger long-term questions, it was as if the future didn’t even exist.  Our approach has always been tactical at best: focusing on short-term gains, while completely ignoring the bigger, long-term existential challenges. There was far more interest in achieving progress than in sustaining it.  For this reason, the emphasis has always been a technological one: it is the short-term technological tools which provide us with the fastest and most spectacular bursts of growth, bringing about an almost immediate transformation every single time.  We quickly learned that technology was viral, it was a profit maker, and for these reasons, virtually unstoppable.  We might as well resign ourselves, sit back and observe as technological viruses ravage through our civilizations like wildfires in the wind.  In this section, I will explain how we tragically relinquished three things to machines:  our freedom, happiness, and responsibility.  I will explain why this happened, and what the existential repercussions are.

We surrendered to technology a long time ago.  Along with personal gain, it was internalized defeatism towards the inevitability of technology which prevented leaders and planners from stopping and thinking about how humans actually felt: at an individual level, living in these new, magical worlds they had constructed.  There was no risk analysis, and perhaps there wasn’t even time to think, as we were all too busy dealing with the changes that each new technological whiplash brought on our doorstep, piling upon still fresh, previous changes.  At every step of our technological journey we forgot to ask the most important question:  was this progress?  Was this really what we wanted?

But the deeper, and more disturbing question we forgot to ask, and which remains unanswered today, was:  were we the ones consciously transforming our lives, or was technology transforming us?  Were we in control of this process or were these technological viruses in the driver seat, infecting our society, leaving us barely capable of mustering a response while we still processed the shocks of the technological revolution that had come right before the current one?  Did there come a point when we just gave up trying to resist, and decided, that we would just have to mold our new life, our entire existence, however best we could, around each new technological monolith that ushered itself into our lives?  Had we been violently pushed aside?  Had humans simply become vehicles for technology’s expansion and evolution? And most importantly, had we become something lesser, perhaps outdated, given that technology mutates and evolves much, much faster than us?

These are all very valid questions which we should be asking retrospectively, all in the context of a bigger question from a practical and biological perspective: how does a human, essentially an animal that does not physically change over time (especially now that medicine has halted natural selection and therefore evolution), cope in a rapidly changing environment?  While in nature species that experience such extreme changes go extinct very quickly, humans had managed to survive, forming a co-dependent relationship with technology based on mutual abuse.  But how was their mental and physical health affected?  Did our societies actually “adapt” or was this a misconception?  Was it more of a case of them having internalized trauma upon trauma?  For example, while we may have significantly increased our life span, how meaningful is this new, long, life we are living?  Since innovation always moves at breakneck speed, there is never the time, or even the desire to test the effects of new technologies on our well-being.  From cigarette smoking to pesticides, humanity has always learned the hard way which of these innovations are good for us and which are not.   Human civilization is an ongoing experiment, and humans are the mad scientists:  too risk-taking to stop and think, and always willing to be guinea pigs in their own study.

Had we been too quick to accept the conveniences that came with technology, for the price of relinquishing essential parts and needs of our biological existence?  We are still made of flesh, blood, feelings and emotions.  Yet each successive technological virus appears to bypass these needs, at best adjusting itself to any severe side-effects to the host, who becomes an unsuspecting carrier.  Putting aside the dazzling array of consumeristic and other benefits we reaped, are we happier than the generations before us?  Or have we completely sold our soul to technology? Today these questions remain unanswered, as technological evolution accelerates and reaches breakneck speed, leaving us to eat dust while it disappears into the distance.  Yet we have completely embraced what is happening to us, maybe because many of us feel there is nothing to do but accept it, or maybe because we cannot even fathom ourselves outside of the context of technology anymore.  It is easy to make the argument that we have been demoted, turned into a peripheral hardware accessory of a much more efficient, emerging, non-DNA-based AI civilization.  Is this the beginning of the end?  Or, have we died already? It is easy to look at this situation and concur that it is already way too late for us to go back to ourselves.  We are too tech-dependent.  But as long as humans are a species made of flesh, blood, water and emotions, they will have needs which are very different to those of machines.  We are not machines, and this is precisely the mistake that we have been making: comparing ourselves to them. 

In order to understand what is happening to us and answer all of these questions, it is important to go back to the beginning of events, and realize that we have enmeshed in a toxic, unconditional love affair with technology which started millennia ago.  In a fashion typical to that of any blind, lovestruck human, we have given ourselves an inferiority complex towards the object of our affection.  Our civilization has given itself a self-harming inadequacy complex against machines.  In the same way that we rejected, and subsequently destroyed, natural “wilderness”, we are beginning to reject anything “non-machine-like” about us. We want to become more like the non-human entity we are in love with. This is a dangerous moment, and the wrong path for us because again, we are not machines.

This love affair explains why the temptation for humanity to succumb and submit to technology unconditionally, has always been too much to resist.  Our freedom was the first to be given up, as we trusted technology with our own life.  Facing the unknown future with vacant, unjustified optimism, we replaced uncertainty with the dogma that technology was working for us, when in fact it had almost domesticated us for its own benefit.  Our adoration of technology, not simply as a means to an end, but as the ideal ultimate destination for humanity’s rebirth and evolution, continued through the ages as we looked down upon our “human errors” and imperfections. Driven by blind adoration, the expectation that this inanimate entity will be forever on our side and even solve all of our existential problems, including the climate crisis, has been incredibly naïve, and will very likely prove to be catastrophic.  But we were too corrupted by the technological goodie bag that had come with the adoption of all of these innovations.  Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Technology was the Trojan horse which was enough to glaze over our eyes and tempt us with more lazy, easy gains.  The price? Auctioning off the last remaining free bits of ourselves to an increasingly sentient entity that does not represent the interests of the human species, simply because it isn’t human.  It is It, and just like us, it only cares about itself. By putting all of our faith and trust in technology, we had relinquished a substantial part of our freedom.  Yes, we did become something “lesser”, because we believed we were lesser.

Along with relinquishing our freedom, we gave up on the notion of true happiness, replacing it with counterfeit versions of happiness which only made sense in a machine world:  we started quantifying happiness in the number of consumer goods we own and GDP, rather than meaningful existence, exactly because we increasingly became like machines.  Today we are as far away as we have ever been from answering the question “are we happy?”, for a very simple reason:  we are trying to answer the question in machine terms.  But it is a question that our technologies and machines do not have to worry about.  Happiness, and human happiness for that matter, is not their problem.  Happiness is exclusively a human problem.  Machines don’t have the emotions, feelings of isolation and social needs that we have, and if they do develop these someday, they will be on a separate cosmos of social hierarchy with its own rules and needs very different from ours.  Yet despite this risk, we have chosen to increasingly mechanize and automate so much of what makes us intrinsically human.  We have stiflingly surrounded ourselves with layer upon layer of digital paraphernalia, naively assuming that the little human buried somewhere within this new ecosystem, would still remain “human”.  What we have done in effect is to try and be increasingly more and more like machines: beings that do not need happiness or define it in quantitative measures that bear no relationship whatsoever to true happiness.  Even psychotherapy is going digital.  We have outsourced our happiness and future of the planet to a techno-economic entity which not only does not understand what happiness is, but it doesn’t fundamentally have a need for it, for itself.  Let that one sink in.

There is never enough inquiry about how humans would feel in a new world, surrounded by new machines, infused with new forever chemicals that they invented long ago, the impact of which on the human body we still do not know, decades later.  Our insight into ourselves runs at a pace much, much slower than the pace of technology.  All we can do is assume impact position and accept the technological, social, emotional and existential whiplash.  It is no wonder that the modern human often feels so alienated, disconnected, and many times completely lost.  The recurring trauma of successive technological impacts has left its mark on our civilization, which has done its best to adapt each time, by trying to catch up with the machines:  to be more machine, and less human. This is a pattern of self-harm that attempts to deal with the original trauma.  But all it achieves is further and further distancing from the self. 

The third and most troubling aspect which humans have relinquished to machines is responsibility.  The hope that technology will save us is misguided, given that technology only cares about itself.  It also doesn’t care about clean air, water, or habitable conditions for fragile, DNA-based life forms.  We put all of our trust and hope into technology, along with the responsibility for cleaning up our own messes.  But responsibility is what happens when we own up to the truth that we are and have always been the one and only master of whatever happens to us.  As long as this civilization feels entitled, it will continue to fall victim to its own irresponsibility.

Lovestruck humans have been nurturing a millennia-old delusion about what our future is, and how we get there. In fact, we have been deluding ourselves that we are progressing. Each generation of humans has been reared with the delusion that it is better off than the generation before: better health, better well-being, more happiness. While this may be true when looking at macroeconomic factors, it is safe to say that we are beginning to fail in critical aspects. Our quality of life is diminishing, and this is evident in the fact that increasingly large parts of our economy are focused on ways of managing and healing the many physical and spiritual ailments we are sustaining in the name of progress.

Each example of “progress ” comes with a counterargument.  For example, the obesity epidemic is the direct result of so-called progress in our food industry: there has been tremendous progress in increasing the shelf-life of products, while at the same time making them highly addictive and full of chemicals.   Mass food production and quantity have been prioritized at the expense of nutritional quality.  Frightening progress in the area of marketing boosted the consumption of this overprocessed food even further, making junk and snack food part of the family culture, and setting humans on a path to diabetes, obesity and cancer from the first days they come into existence on the planet.  Our wellbeing has been going into reverse for a long time now. We may live longer, but this is due to technologies and medicines addressing modern diseases that did not even exist before.  The reality is we have many more ailments today, as well as more things to worry about.

Our current predicament has already answered the question “will humans be happy in this future world?” There are record levels of depression and anxiety, which most of us accept as a benign compromise of “modern living”.  We have blindly accepted that in this new, polluted and mechanised world, we are meant to be busy, to be stressed, sleepless, and unhappy.  Yet we don’t recognize that this is not an ordinary unhappiness, but a deep existential crisis that is here to stay, simply because we said goodbye to all our previous worlds: we relinquished our freedom, our happiness, and our responsibility.  Without thinking twice, in our rush to achieve each new milestone in our civilization we galloped forwards, leaving behind both body and mind.

Continuing to adopt machine-defined as opposed to human-defined ideals of happiness, we naively assumed that we would be happier and more fulfilled in a world that was more functional.  All our models of progress focused on increasing our every-day convenience, rather than in developing our well-being.  We have left a lot of our life up to automation and “efficiency”, without realizing the negative effects of this.  Our mechanised educational system is focused on developing skills, rather than developing humans.  It prioritizes building specialized humans with “skills” and “qualifications”, rather than whole ones with a world view, critical thinking, moral compass and a conscience.  Our work has moved from real jobs to “bullshit jobs”, from making stuff to handling stuff, and from doing to re-doing.  We may have built machines to automate our lives, but we became machines ourselves in the process.

In fact, it would seem that we are beginning to look more and more similar to each other, as if we are industrially-made products ourselves.  Just like the cheap, mass-manufactured products that they created, humans have become more single-layered, predictable and plastic.  Society has become a factory churning out almost identical humans who are ready to consume more, think less, and never dare to stray away from the assembly line of the factory, or they’ll be quickly chucked into the bin labelled “unsellable”.  We have become the sweatshop-made, barcoded, budget version of our former selves.  Our worth is pre-set, our whereabouts are known at all times, and our usage is clearly limited by the safety label in the back of the packet.

It is easy to see the damage that our love affair with machines has inflicted on us in as little as just one generation.  The conversations I have with my mother about her childhood are most enlightening.  In my mother’s house, there was no fridge. Families would prepare their own food and find ingenious ways to store it. People were very poor, but much fulfillment came from being connected to the food production process.  I remember my mother’s story about making home-made pasta, using locally sourced flour, butter and eggs which of course have a much higher nutritional content. After the dough was made, sheets and strings of pasta dough were suspended from every piece of furniture in the house in order to air-dry, before it was to be cut to pieces and stored for the winter. The entire family was involved in the production, and my mother’s main role as a little girl was to make sure the cats were kept away from jumping on the strings of pasta while it dried. The food was more nutritious, and the family was making memories, feeling connected with each other, feeling grateful to the mill that gave them the flour, the hens that laid the eggs, the generosity of nature and the community they lived in.  Compare this to the five seconds it takes to grab a stale imported packet of bleached pasta and throw it in the supermarket trolley. Are we happy in our new world?  Are we even alive?

It is no wonder that some of us are asking this, given that much of our life has become virtual: our friends, our workplaces, our leisurely activities.  We are becoming algorithms, avatars, trying to navigate a world that is not just a step change from where we are, but a massive leap into the unknown.  Can our mental and physical health handle it?  There are signs that many of us are feeling lost as well as oppressed in such a world.  There is increasing pressure to conform to stereotypes propagated by the metaverse, projected on to us by an economic system that is only interested in making us efficient consumers.  In the name of living up to our online avatar and the perfect person we are expected to be in this new world, we are increasingly asked to compromise our personal life, our data, anything that makes us look “different”, at the risk of being chucked into the “unsellable” bin.  Racism and discrimination take on much more covert, digital incarnations, escaping detection.

The more humans become isolated from each other through layers and layers of algorithm, the more they embark on a terrifying, desperate quest to “find themselves” in the dark digital universe, rather than in the right here, right now. It is no wonder that there is a entire industry of life coaching set up to monetize our new insecurities in this environment, and a pathological blogging and social media culture aimed to convince people that they are not good enough, both physically and mentally, so that they purchase “life-yoga solutions”.

Modern civilization is looking increasingly like a botched plastic surgery: we went in for a huge facelift job so that we can look great on the outside, without even asking about the internal complications in the medium term.  Rather than stepping back and considering our place, we are adding one plastic surgery on top of another as our psychological coping strategy. 

In a much broader sense, our natural world won’t be happy if we don’t manage to be happy first.  We are taking out our mental illnesses on Earth, mindlessly destroying our natural heritage in order to fuel consumption and other addictions.   In order to finance this habit, some of us accept to take high-paying corporate jobs that increasingly lead to burnout, discrimination, exploitation and further isolation and dehumanisation that we willingly subject ourselves to. We are driving ourselves mad as well as physically ill, for nothing.

And yet we still choose to call all of this, “progress”.  Our toxic love affair continues, unabated.

George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books

3 thoughts on “Our Game-Ending Love Affair With Technology

  1. We are the freaks of nature and refuse to see it. We and the rest of life are the victims of our success. We are a bizarre mutation that became the ultimate predator amongst all others. A “godly” power to create prosthetic devices without recognizing the side effects of what we are doing. We are the parasite killing the host and refuse to admit it. We have become invincible! Our destiny is to colonize the “Universe”! Quite a myth to focus on. Our search for significance in the vast void. Trapped in a cul de sac of our own making. Tragic for the miracle of life on earth. Life as we know it may be very rare, which kind of makes it sacred. I personally apologize for my lack of reverence to “Life” and planet, for what its worth, not much of course. Love Rick

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