Some worry, even fear, that technology may surpass human interaction. This is exactly what I would call a Promethean fear: the fear that a new technology will somehow lead to our demise or change human nature. Human nature seems robust. Things like running water, central heating – even money and fame – only expose and amplify what was there to begin with. There’s no significant change in human nature during any person’s lifetime. We live like the royalty of a thousand years ago, but still believe that we don’t have enough. We still crave the same things: love, meaning, safety, exploration and growth. When I see a guy sitting across from a girl in Starbucks looking at his phone – that’s boredom that has become socially acceptable whereas it wasn’t quite as “normal” before. It is the fundamentals of their relationship exposed – and it is obvious that something isn’t right. In days gone by it would have been a yawn – or simply staring into space. Now this is emptiness filled up with the instant gratification of likes and shares on social media and the lovely cats on YouTube. The ancient Egyptians would be proud.
It’s not that things don’t change. They change gradually. Human nature appears to remain fairly constant. What if technology gets a sprinkle of human nature when it comes to artificial intelligence. When machines can properly learn and execute without our approval – that can get scary. We may fall in love with AI – the way that was shown in the film Her. Something interesting happened today when I went running. Naturally enough, I procrastinated right up to the point of when it became dark as I was finishing my run. I went to turn on the flashlight on my iPhone only to realise that the latest update has changed the layout of the place that the flashlight button is normally in. It took some fiddling, but I found it. For about three minutes I was let down and disappointed by Apple – stranded in the dark. I was afraid that I’d step on something. In a way, that’s kind of the fear of AI: they will sabotage us by taking control. It’s happening already, in 2016. I never asked for my phone to move the flashlight button. Have my interactions changed? I don’t think so. In the 1990s, parents were terrified of adding phone lines into their kids rooms – because that would finish them. Video games. TV. Radio – before that. Nothing has really changed the fundamental needs we have. Do people actually spend less time in the pub? I think they do. However, they are spending more time at festivals – taking snaps of their tents and dirty boots – and surely to God, they are interacting with other people.
What did people do before the radio? Before this so called technology? After all, we are still using electromagnetic waves to communicate, so the radio is a closer relative of modern technology than it might initially appear. They read books and newspapers. Is it really that different that reading something online? For sure, there’s no instant feedback, but you are still finding out what people did miles and years away from where you are. I think that reading a book by Seneca or Tolstoy is a human interaction. It is deep, meaningful – it is life changing. Sometimes it is like getting advice from a grandfather you never had. To further emphasise that point, I remember having a brief imaginary love affair with Prince Andrei from War and Peace. Am I that different from the poor chap in Her? I have a bit more insight, that’s all. Human nature will drive us to find answers in whatever place is available – nature, books or social media. We seek and find human interaction no more and no less than we did before.
I honestly can’t be sure what the world was like before the printing press. I guess people were just bored more. I guess they craved each other’s company more. I am not sure that they had that luxury as going back even 200 years ago putting food on the table was a real struggle. Is it possible that people interacted more in the past? Possibly. However, if that is the case – that ship has sailed a long time ago.
If anything I would argue that my mother in her 50s has the opportunity to be connected to her classmates that she hadn’t seen in 30 years – an option she would never have had had she been born 30 years earlier. Technology gives us opportunities to be social or to hide from human interaction. The choice is down to human nature – the nature of any given human. It is tempting to blame technology. We all know that it’s not the development of advanced weapons that leads nations to be more aggressive. It’s not the development of social networks that causes people to give terrible anonymous comments. It’s the other way around. The problem is that blaming technology is just another way to hide from our own choices.