If you have grown up in American culture, there’s a strong chance you have a happy view of technology: you know, Star Wars, DVRs, and iPhones. We Americans love new things – it’s in our cultural DNA to prefer new to old, and even more so when it involves a technological whatchamacallit. Our unthinking acceptance of technology may have a darker side though–particularly when that technology calls into question the very concept of personhood.
For some time I have believed that in the coming century, the biggest ethical question may be, “What does it mean to be human?”
Every time there’s an advancement in biotechnology, like the woman who moved a cursor just by thinking about it, we become one step closer to a gaussian fade on the line between human and computer. Someday, they say, we may all become cyborgs. If this sounds ridiculous, consider what everyday Americans take for granted: Lasik, heart machines, and cochlear implants, to name a few. If these sound like the biotech equivalent of the Eniac machine, then just wait. The brain-computer mind meld is coming, and it may include the ability to acquire information directly into our minds, the ability to store our memories to a computer, and more.
Further, if you put ads into the mix, maybe our thoughts would have corporate sponsors, too, like an ad that appears in our head and on a floating screen in front of us when we walk past a relevant billboard like in Minority Report.
Some changes aren’t high tech, either, but still have profound influence. For example, your Google search results are not the same thing as your neighbor’s. Google now customizes results to tailor to your tastes. What you get on Google is not purely unbiased information – it is a set of news and ideas tailored made to appeal to your sensibilities.
Why is this a bad thing? Well, if you’ve ever wondered why the political climate in America is so toxic, maybe this is a clue. Consider: If you are Democrat, you read on Google about the certainty and dangers of climate change. If you are Republican, you read about continued doubts about the science of climate change. Each side is certain of their truth. These days, it may be hard to get an unbiased opinion anywhere.
If such thoughts are fascinating and perhaps disturbing, “Mind Control and the Internet“, a book review of World Wide Mind:The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet by Michael Chorost, may be good reading. It should be an essential starting point for ethical business behavior in the 21st century.