Assuming that we really are evolving as we wear or inhabit more technological prosthetics—like ever-smarter phones, helpful glasses, and brainy cars—here’s the big question: Will that type of evolution take us in desirable directions, as we usually assume biological evolution does?The best line:
Some, like the Wired founder Kevin Kelly, believe that the answer is a resounding “yes.” In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”
We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”
The Oji-Cree have been in contact with European settlers for centuries, but it was only in the nineteen-sixties, when trucks began making the trip north, that newer technologies like the internal combustion engine and electricity really began to reach the area. The Oji-Cree eagerly embraced these new tools. In our lingo, we might say that they went through a rapid evolution, advancing through hundreds of years of technology in just a few decades.
The good news is that, nowadays, the Oji-Cree no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times. They can more easily import and store the food they need, and they enjoy pleasures like sweets and alcohol. Life has become more comfortable. The constant labor of canoeing or snowshoeing has been eliminated by outboard engines and snowmobiles. Television made it north in the nineteen-eighties, and it has proved enormously popular.
But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.
Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances.
The Oji-Cree are an unusual case. It can take a society time to adjust to new technologies, and the group has also suffered other traumas, like colonization and the destruction of cultural continuity. Nonetheless, the story offers an important warning for the human race. The problem with technological evolution is that it is under our control and, unfortunately, we don’t always make the best decisions.
Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility. If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.
As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse? Go and read it now. A terrific meditation on one of the central themes of this blog.