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Debate: Is Technology Making Us Less Human?

Steve Gullans, Managing Director, Excel Venture Management

Steve Gullans: To Be Human Is To Adapt

L. Mark Carrier, Co-Founder & Co-Director, George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory

L. Mark Carrier: How to Restore a Touch of Humanity to the Online World

The pace of innovation may be accelerating, but our ability to adapt to the latest technologies remains undeterred.


Technology is not an obstacle to humanity. Humans evolve — behaviorally, physically, morally, biologically.

Over many millennia, humans migrated around the globe adapting to changing climates, predators, foods, pathogens, rival tribes and countless obstacles and opportunities. To be human is to adapt.

Life today bears little resemblance to that of just a couple of centuries ago when life was short, often violent, harsh during long winters, treacherous for pregnant mothers, often light on calories, subject to unexpected plagues, filled with little leisure activity, and miserable in so many ways that most people today do not envy those times.

Thankfully, technology evolves, too. Innovative technologies, created by humans to benefit themselves, are among the principal drivers of changes in the human condition. The Darwinian drive to survive and reproduce has expressed itself in unexpected ways through the human mind, which is always seeking to create, invent, develop, improve and advance. We all know the story: stone tools led to writing, aqueducts, printing, farm implements, heating, electricity, medicines, computers, satellites, gene therapy and more. Today, surviving to adulthood and reproducing occurs with greater certainty than ever, thanks to manmade technologies — antibiotics, nutritious and abundant foods, fertility treatments, C-sections. Manmade technologies have changed our lives, generally for the better.

Consider biotechnology, a young discipline that is beginning to transform disease treatments. When Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971, little did we realize that it would require the invention of whole new fields before the prospect of long-term cures could seem within reach. With the development of genetic engineering, molecular imaging, genomics, biomarkers, biomanufacturing and myriad other technologies, we are now seeing major advances. Cancer therapies are now more targeted, less toxic, and able to prolong life. In the case of rare inborn genetic mutations, personalized gene therapy is now curing children in the EU and China. After a 30-year plateau in FDA drug approvals, 2014 witnessed a jump in new drugs.

The human mind is finally able to grasp the complexities of our own biology and design solutions. Optimism reigns for treating human diseases.

Lest we get over exuberant, recall that humans have a penchant for pushing innovations another step further — often seeking enhancements to performance or beauty — once something is relatively safe and affordable. Human growth hormone, Epo, Botox, and Lasik were all borne from medical applications.

Fortunately, while excesses and mistakes can and do occur, humans historically find a way to co-evolve with new technologies — though it can take time, new legal and moral codes and even contentious debates and struggles. Remember, Socrates rued the rise of writing, as he believed that the art of memory would be lost to future generations. Some towns initially refused electric lighting; 19th century Luddites destroyed early textile machinery; and today many educated people consider Golden Rice to be evil, though it can prevent blindness in children.

The debates we see today about how modern technology harms our children, ourselves, society and our environment are not new. Somehow humans have found ways to adjust and adapt.

So today, what — if anything — is different? Pace and scale. The pace of innovation is accelerating, as Ray Kurzweil and others note. Technologies arrive at an exponential rate because they build cumulatively upon each other, across disciplines. Moreover, with 7 billion people on earth, new technologies can affect nearly everyone in some way, not to mention the entire planet — global warming, constant electronic engagement, living “too long.”

I believe the human spirit and mind can handle the coming waves of technology. The greatest challenges will require multi-generational, multi-cultural solutions. However, what is most uncomfortable for us today is that humans will need to change — our minds, our bodies, our behaviors, our priorities, our wishes for ourselves and our children.

As in the past, thanks to human imagination and perseverance, we will adopt new ways of modifying ourselves and our world for the better. And since being human means being able to adapt, change course and evolve, we will learn to embrace the change we create — in large part because we will ethically and logically steer the course of our own evolution in ways that are fundamentally human.


The interface between technology and the brain will be also explored in the third episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “Decoding the Brain,” directed by Brett Ratner. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)


Gullans headshotSteve Gullans, PhD, is a scientist, author, entrepreneur and investor. The former Harvard professor is co-author of “Evolving Ourselves,” a witty perspective on human evolution today.





All views expressed are those of the author.

We need a new set of social norms for the Internet era to prevent online interactions from doing more harm than good.


What makes it psychologically easy for a human to remotely pilot a drone and use it to assassinate another human on the other side of the world? What makes it easy for one person to unleash a piece of malware that infects millions of computers around the world? Or, closer to home, what makes it possible for one adolescent to post vicious lies about another adolescent online to the point where the victim would want to commit suicide?

Normal human relations — those done face to face — require a whole set of rules of engagement that keep our innate selfish instincts in check. Social norms develop around our interactions, based on the context in which they occur and the culture that we come from. In the Internet era, however, the traditional norms often no longer apply — creating a need for a new set of rules on behavior…

Traditional social norms run deep, having been established over long periods of time. There are rules for how we talk to our parents, how we talk to our kids, how we talk to our spouses. There are rules for how we engage with each other work and at play. The social norms are not written down — they exist in our psyches and are passed from one generation to the next through deeds, role modeling and sometimes through explicit instruction.

Further, our shared human ancestry puts constraints on how we interface with each other. Evolutionary psychologists have noted that ancient humans existed in small tribes of 100 or so individuals, without much contact with any other humans. In this confined grouping, it might have been impossible to say anything mean about another person without it becoming known by everyone in the tribe — much like how people characterize living in small towns today.

When we go online and gain access to the magical Internet world, we are not looking at the face of another human. Rather, we are looking at a computer screen, or a phone screen or a tablet screen — inanimate objects that do not share human qualities in appearance or behavior.

One might say that something insidious happens when we go online. John Suler, in an influential academic paper in 2004, outlined the Online Disinhibition effect. He noted that people say and do things online that they wouldn’t normally do face-to-face. Our natural tendency to “be nice” and to “get along” might become disengaged and lead to disinhibition.

While this effect can be beneficial in certain cases — say, for shy people who have trouble in face-to-face interactions — it can be problematic in many other cases. Who hasn’t posted information online that they later regretted? Who hasn’t poked around online looking for “dirt” on other people?

These are two very mild situations, but what about saying mean things online? What about “griefing” other players in an online game? What about posting one’s true feelings about their boss? These actions can have much more harmful outcomes.

While most people might disagree that they become mean people when going online, they simultaneously probably will have to admit that they have done at least a few mean things or taken a few actions online that they don’t want anyone else to learn about. (What are you hiding?) Serious side effects in human collective behavior — such as cyberbullying, online scams and misleading and invasive advertising — can result. There are several ways in which we can become disinhibited, but the common thread through these mechanisms is that the online world does not seem real — and people that are encountered online are not real in the same way as if you were speaking to them face-to-face.

What is needed is a New Social Norm of online interaction — one that accepts anonymity as a generator of good ideas and good involvement in online forums, but makes behaving badly poorly accepted by others, with serious consequences. The New Social Norm requires people to raise their standards of acceptable behavior of others when being behind a screen to avoid the negative effects of inhibition.

The real target of the New Social Norm should be kids. Even now, the norms of online social behavior among kids are degenerate — griefing, trolling and hacking are common among teens and not perceived as harmful. Substantial funding and, more importantly, overcoming apathy about the problems of humans interacting online or being behind a screen will be required to initiate a generation-long change in mindset that is centered on the education of children at an early age through the school system.

This is not a flowery notion of everyone being nice to each other online. Rather, it’s a call for a long-term change in social norms — one that fights against the negative impact of online disinhibition. The goal is to make cyberbullying, hacking, etc., never again acceptable to anyone. With any luck, future generations will find remote-controlled drone assassinations and similar distance-killing (e.g., robot warriors) abhorrent.


The interface between technology and the brain will be also explored in the third episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “Decoding the Brain,” directed by Brett Ratner. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)


drcarrier headshotL. Mark Carrier, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Assessment at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is also Co-Founder & Co-Director of George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory.





All views expressed are those of the author.