We seem to face a number of important questions about the future as we witness the continual rise of technology:
What will humans do with their free time once work is replaced by robots? Will we be free to enjoy a life of more luxury, convenience, and absence of worry?
What will humans do once AI has the capacity to solve more problems? Will we be free from experiencing anxiety about the future?
What pain will we suffer once technology cures all mental and physical illness, and what will be the purpose of life once technology diminishes (or eliminates) the existential fear of death?
But implicit in these questions are assumptions that I believe are wrong and reckless — assumptions that, without serious reflection and reconsideration, may lead humanity down a path of more, not less, suffering. That technology will create more free time and convenience; that technology will reduce worry and anxiety about future problems; that technology will lead to the elimination, or even reduction, of pain and suffering and even death — these are all assumptions that perhaps we have backwards.
What if, so long as we continue to fuel the current technological paradigm, we end up more busy and distracted in the future, not less? What if the problems we face individually and collectively — and the anxiety we have about those threats — grows, instead of diminishes? What if we find that, despite our growing list of scientific and medical achievements, our internal experiences as human beings are plagued by more suffering, discontent, and anguish, contrary to the belief that these can be pacified?
This is the alternative reality that I hope we can at least entertain. The reasons for believing this alternative is possible is not very far-fetched. In fact, the evidence of such a future has been mirrored to us every step of the way of humanity’s ascent.
This article, and my thinking more broadly on this topic, is inspired by the work of Charles Eisenstein. In his book, The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self, Eisenstein demonstrates how the project of science and technology — the quest to understand and control the world, respectively — has failed, time and again, to deliver the utopia it promises to create.
The mantra of this paradigm of “progress” is, Just a little bit more science and technology… and we’ll finally be there! But, as Eisenstein points out, this an empty promise akin to the experience of addiction; one never reaches the horizon of bliss, and the effort and means to reach this illusory destination become greater and more complex with time.
This time, it’ll work.
Things will be better with a little more control.
This the mindset underlying the addiction to technology.
But to assume that something will work in the future, we should have some proof that it’s worked in the past.
Yes, technology has allowed humans to progress in so many remarkable ways. It is too obvious to remunerate them here. But the question I care most about is, Does technology decrease human suffering, or does it add to it?
I think the answer is much more complicated than we are led to believe. Technology appears to offer greater time, convenience, and disease treatment/prevention — yet this might be a distortion, a sort of psychological spell we have fallen under, motivated by the same wishful thinking that drives the addict.
Technology doesn’t always increase time, convenience, and disease prevention/treatment: we may in fact be more busy, burdened, and sick than ever before. Technology often does the opposite of what it aims to achieve.
Still, when technology does increase time, convenience, and disease prevention/treatment, does this actually translate into increased human happiness? Or, at our current heights of technological progress, are we suffering now more than ever?
The agricultural revolution was a significant turning point in human history and encapsulates the paradoxical impact of well-intentioned technological progress on human well-being.
Agriculture was supposed to bring more time and convenience, negate anxiety about the future, and reduce illness and death. Harvesting crops in a controlled landscape should reduce the time, energy, and uncertainty required in hunting and gathering. Having more assurance of where one’s food is coming from would seemingly reduce anxiety about the future; ahhh, at last… we can relax. Having access to vetted and reliable food sources should reduce illness and death.
Agriculture should make life better.
But this picture is not so nice and neat.
In fact, history tells a story contrary to the one promised by technology at the time.
Instead of providing food security, reducing illness and death, and minimizing tribal competition and conflict, agriculture eventually propagated a preponderance of famine, disease epidemics, and war.
Despite the promise of enhancing leisure and reducing anxiety, the opposite occurred: agriculture led to increased labor and more anxiety about the future. Eisenstein explains:
Paradoxically, while agriculture raised nature’s productivity of food (for humans), it also introduced the contemporary concept of labor. Food was at once more abundant but also harder to get. With agriculture we had to work today to obtain food tomorrow — a primary example of the paradox of technology, which has brought us to the brink of catastrophe despite its motivating goals of ease, comfort, and security…
Here was a source of constant inescapable anxiety woven into the fabric of life itself — no matter how successful this year’s harvest, what of next year?
This is the human illusion of control being expressed through the paradigm of technology. More control over our environment is supposed to lessen anxiety, but paradoxically increases it; the more I can control and predict, the less tolerance I have for uncertainty, and therefore the more I want to control and predict. Anxiety is a positive feedback loop sustained by the mechanism of control. The way out of the loop is not more control, yet that is the illusion offered to us. And we continue to be under that spell today. How far down this negative spiral will we travel? Just a little bit more control…
Agriculture is not the only example of the illusory promises of technology. Eisenstein delivers a sobering reality check on the medical front:
Consider the overall effect of the successes [of the medical establishment]… Premature babies have much higher rates of survival — but far more babies are born prematurely. Most of the new pharmaceuticals merely control symptoms, often with severe side effects. Hormone replacement therapy is turning out to be a disaster; the same is true for cholesterol-lowering medication, antidepressants, and many over-the-counter drugs… There has been no “cure” for any of the poster-child diseases such as muscular dystrophy and breast cancer. Certainly no major disease has been wiped out since we conquered the great killers of the nineteenth century. Coronary artery disease has retreated little, if at all, in thirty years. Cancer is doing just fine, thank you. Arthritis is just as devastating as ever, strokes nearly as common, Alzheimer’s disease on the rise… This state of affairs constitutes a great unspoken crisis in medicine. Despite unprecedented billions of dollars in pharmaceutical research, medicine seems to be losing ground in the “battle against disease.” Typically, the response is more technology, more precise control at the genetic and molecular level. A continued search for the ‘cure’
One might protest the basic thesis here by arguing that technology has, indeed, eliminated much human suffering on earth. Technology in our modern age has helped reduce famine, create greater convenience, and cure painful diseases for millions (or billions) across the globe. So, we should continue along this path. The world is much better today than it was 20, 50, or 500 years ago. This is the argument of Steven Pinker (e.g., Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress) and others who are skeptical about the “the world is falling apart” mentality of many people today (especially younger people).
Okay, true. Science and technology have generated all of those things. The paradigm of progress has reduced famine, cured diseases, increased social connectivity, and introduced other aspects of modern life to people across the globe.
Yet there is one question that I still don’t see being asked or answered. Are humans happier than before? Despite less physical suffering, are we experience more or less mental suffering? What is it like to be a human being today?
You don’t need to look far to recognize that people are fucking miserable today. We see it everywhere. We experience it ourselves. Rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide continue to grow. Mass shootings continue to plague the U.S. and other countries. Despite the attempts to exterminate terrorism, it has gone virtually nowhere. Yes, we’re more connected, but subjectively we’re lonelier than ever before.
Again, the paradox of technology.
More control on the outside — the illusion of progress — yet greater suffering in totality. The addict feels good when he/she gets a “hit” — all seems well. The future appears bright. But the effects of this quick-fix mindset end up accumulating more suffering, more chaos. The only thing left to do, then, is take another hit.
Or is there another way forward?
A Spiritual Revolution
The problem we are discussing here is, I believe, fundamentally a spiritual problem.
I am not proposing that we abandon technological progress altogether and revert back to the “good old” hunting and gathering days. Although it does sound kind of nice to give up the distraction of my iPhone.
We have to shift our mindset around technology. We have to prioritize technology that prioritizes human well-being.
This requires a deep and honest look at our patterns of behavior. Is what we’re doing working? Is it creating a world with more, or less, suffering? The first step in addiction is admitting one has a problem.
Recognizing that one’s behavior is leading to more suffering, and endeavoring to change it, is a spiritual process. It requires taking personal responsibility. It involves radical self-acceptance and self-compassion. It invokes a sense of grief for all the time “lost” engaging in the harmful behavior. It asks for faith in the unknown — we don’t always know what the path forward looks like. It necessitates courage to face that unknown.
This is how we evolve individually. It is also, I believe, how we evolve collectively.
At some point, we must reflect on where we are and where we want to go — a sacred pause — if we are to pursue a better future. The current paradigm of scientific and technological progress, while serving the ascent of humanity, is not necessarily serving our souls. To break the spell, we must ask different questions with different assumptions:
Might more technology make us feel “busier” than ever?
Might we be slave to more worry and anxiety as technology grows?
As mental and physical illnesses are “cured,” will we have less tolerance for discomfort and therefore suffer even more? What will be the meaning of life if the fear of death is eliminated?
- Eisenstein, C. (2013). The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self. North Atlantic Books: Berkely, California.