Robots taking over manufacturing jobs. Autonomous cars and delivery trucks. Drones in warfare but also delivering aid in disasters. Webcams on our porches. Surveillance capitalism and our privacy. Disinformation on social media, doxing and trolls. Cryptocurrencies, scams and hackers. Constant notifications. Augmented and virtual reality. Genetic engineering. Nanotechnologies clearing clogs in our arteries. Brain computer interfaces. And so much more. We are feeling overwhelmed with all the technology come at us today.
Yes, we are overwhelmed. You’re not alone. But why do we feel so overwhelmed? How did we get to this point and what can we do as technology inevitably embeds itself deeper into our lives?
There are, I think, two primary reasons we feel so overwhelmed. The first has to do with our ability as a species, to adapt. The second has to do with technology itself, specifically digital technologies and their exponential advancement.
Our Ability to Adapt
A rather long time ago, humans decided, subconsciously, to take a different route to adaptation that other animals. We chose to use culture instead of genetics. It takes a very long time for genetic adaptation to happen, like many thousands of years. Humans realized that in order to survive, we needed to move fast. So we use culture, which is the knowledge we use to navigate our lives. When climates got cold, we just took the fur from other animals and made clothes and showed our families and communities and we adapted. I’m simplifying.
We do have genetic adaptations in us too, such as skin colour, which has to do with the climates different humans evolved in. But it’s culture that has helped us evolve faster as a species than any other animal. And we are, don’t forget, animals.
We also invented technologies to get the skins from animals, get firewood, build shelter and so on. As we began to combine different technologies to further exploit and survive in our environments our societies were able to evolve faster and faster.
But for hundreds of thousands of years, we took a very long time to evolve alongside our technologies. As a result, various cultures and societies had time to adapt technologies and to adapt to them. This is no longer the case.
As I explain below, we’re in a time of exponential technological development, especially when it comes to digital technologies. Our brains and thus our sociocultural systems, are struggling to figure out how to adapt these technologies and how we can adapt to having them in our lives. It can become overwhelming. We no longer have the time and space we once had to debate, discuss and evolve.
As I mentioned above, humans have become very skilled at combining technologies in novel ways, such as the steam engine and telephone, telegraph and radio. It is digital technologies however, where things really got interesting. Todays smartphone is a complex combination of technologies.
Artificial Intelligence is another that’s benefiting from exponentials. CRISPR genetic manipulation. Nanotechnologies, robotics that also leverages AI, materials advancements and miniaturization such as through chips.
Another significant change to prior technical advances is the number of citizens that can now leverage digital technologies unlike ever before. Anyone can learn code and experiment with all kinds of materials for both physical and digital technology innovations. From biohacking to apps. While there have always been inventors, now it’s about scale due to the accessibility of technology and the ability to communicate via the internet.
While I’m being brief and simplifying here, the net result is we feel overwhelmed because there are more novel technologies coming at us at a global scale than ever before in human history. Our cultures don’t yet have the skill sets to adapt at such speed, nor do our societies.
Our brains have never had to cope with such complexity arising from digital technologies. And many of these technologies have profound implications for our sociocultural systems. Blockchain and crypt on the financial sector, social media on culture and systems of government, CRISPR on the ethics of gene therapies, robots on economics, drones on warfare and ethics in AI.
Our current systems of bureaucracy, government and industry are struggling to keep up and to adapt themselves and those systems are made up of humans.
So we are feeling overwhelmed. We will for a while. But humans are incredibly adaptable. We are masters at exploiting niches and figuring things out. In the meantime, sit down, buckle up and hold on!