The other day I was talking with colleagues about the way that we use tools to overcome our physiological limitations and, in particular, how we have begun to use computers to compensate for our cognitive limits. One of my colleagues then described our increasing reliance on machines to carry out certain mental tasks as “devolution.”
If evolution describes those adaptations that a species undergoes in order to thrive, devolution are those adaptations which put a species at risk.
But which mental tasks are integral to our future survival are not obvious. The challenges we faced yesteryear are not necessarily the ones we will confront tomorrow. If we are to say which tasks are worth carrying out “the old way”, we must first consider what are our greatest existential threats today.
I believe they are now primarily of a social nature.
At our current stage of evolution, we humans are not only adapting to our environment, but, also, adapting our environment to ourselves. This feedback loop means that how we define humanity must also include our environment: our tools, ourselves. (For more on this concept, see homo faber or the Gaia philosophy.)
We can no more separate human from machine than we can separate human from language. Nurture is part of our nature. So are politics.
It’s been noted that we humans have a difficult time thinking about the future. This blind spot could be one of the reasons why we are struggling to coordinate a proper response to global warming. But this very dilemma points to how inextricably linked we are to our machines – and to each other.
Without technology we cannot “see” – let alone understand – the problem of global warming. Without each other, we cannot respond to it.
Against this backdrop, any tool that allows us to better relate to one another is a welcome adaptation. Likewise, any tool that allows us to both exploit and preserve our environment.
If there is a threat of devolution in our culture, it is the notion that we can and should fend for ourselves. Rugged individualism is incompatible with the survival of a species.