Earth Notes: Where are we going?

By Alice Darlington

So much has changed in the last 30 years and at such a rapid pace, that I wonder where we are going as humans, Homo sapiens.

Is the technology we are continually inventing and incorporating into our lives changing us into a species more machine-like than human? What will we be like and does it matter? Calculators have meant that many people don’t know how to do basic math calculations; word processors and spell check have doomed cursive writing and spelling; e-mails and text messaging have replaced letters and probably journals so that future historians won’t have these records to use in looking into the past. Photos are stored in the cloud, on computers. Will they be available for future generations?

We have always altered our surroundings just as other animals do. We build shelters — houses, igloos, teepees, etc. just as beavers build their dams; bees, their hives; termites, their mounds; birds, their nests and so forth. In addition, we have altered ourselves, improving sight and hearing with eyeglasses and hearing aids; we replace hips and knees, heart valves and severed limbs and so much more. Really extraordinary!

When technology, however, substitutes for capacities we had, as, for example, with computers and calculators, will we have lost our independence? When the computers in a bank or market “go down,” everything stops. In other words, we now depend on something else, power, to do what people previously could do. The newest technology about to change our lives is autonomous vehicles, expected in a year or so, perhaps even this year. These vehicles will be safer and more efficient we are told, but if we no longer have to drive ourselves, will we forget how? Or never learn. What happens if that ‘autonomy’ breaks down?

Through technology Dolly, the sheep, was cloned from an adult body cell and since then, a number of other mammals; a woman can get pregnant with her dead husband’s sperm; prospective parents can, through a process called Crispr, make changes to their genomes — curious though, that this is considered acceptable to prevent birth defects and future illness yet not acceptable for plants through GMOs (genetically modified organisms) although GMO use has resulted in increased crop yields and drought survival, and over a third less chemical pesticide used.

Alan Lightman in his book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, proposes that one day in the not distant future we may be able to inject tiny robots into our bodies to deliver drugs, kill cancer cells and repair DNA. We may have brain implants for memory storage, language learning and actual language streaming. Some of this sounds good, but for me, this meddling with who we are and our capacities makes me uncomfortable. It is impossible to foresee the consequences that are often not positive, such as when antibiotics were so commonly used that in turn many viruses evolved to become even more deadly.

With more and more implanted parts do we lose our humanity, as it is now?

The changes in communication have evolved so quickly that phone chats and even e-mails have ceded to text messages and tweets on Twitter, distancing the personal from our lives. I heard a commentary from a psychoanalyst on the radio who said children often don’t know how to relate to her, with simple greetings and answers and she thought it was because of examples set by parents, focused on phones and computers instead of personal interaction. Everything being so instantly available has already translated into shorter attention spans with college students often being unwilling to take on lengthy reading assignments. Little children giving orders to Alexa, Siri and Hey Google are learning to be bossy and almost treating the technology like a person — and the reverse. Is this a positive thing?

How often these days do people pause just to look around and wonder?

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