Friday, December 02, 2005


Last weekend V and I chatted about how technology has become increasingly embedded in the lives of children. Whilst we still think of most of the gizmos in our own lives as tools – to be used and discarded according to need – it seems to us that for many teens and pre-teens they are becoming more like clothes: something it's hard to imagine carrying on daily life without.

Kurzweil and others speak of the coming singularity, the moment when human-computer interface has become so intimate that tool and user are in a sense one super organism. This pre-destined merger of human and machine intelligence is tending towards a point of transcendence that Kurzweil forecasts for the middle of the twenty-first century. Along the way he might speak of a cure for global poverty, but what he is really on about is a cure for the human condition – and the particular human in question is clearly Ray Kurzweil.

This notion of transhumanity is dangerously detached from humanism and exposes the key fault lines in futurist thinking. Alarm bells ring every time I hear someone naively express the view that technology in itself is neutral: "It's the uses it's put to that determine the ethical implications.." (Even Richard Dawkins prefers to argue that it's Science that is neutral, whilst technology begins once the Science is applied.) If it was, it would be one of the few areas of our culture that could be thus kept so neatly separate from the minds of those that imagined it.

V and I have both grown up with computers and other technological tools and she in particular has a knack for rapidly scouting out the new possibilities offered by each as it emerges. But she also has a keen sense of what is lost (as I learned when she wholeheartedly rejected the concept of in-car sat nav) and that is something that younger people who have never fully experienced the 'problem' without the technological solution will increasingly find it hard to form an objective view on.

As today's parents rush to bring up lots of little transhumans (because intimacy with technology is seen as a marker of potential), they might give some thought to nurturing that part of their children's imagination you might call their inner luddite. Not to the point of actual gizmophobia, just suitably sceptical about Kurzweil-style techno-narcisistic over-enthusiasm.

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