Seven New Rules for Interacting With Technology

What's to come?
April 13 2014 10:41 PM

A Survival Plan for the Wild Cyborg

Seven new rules for interacting with technology.

Friends, smartphones
In the near future, smartphones, watches, eyewear, and a growing circle of digital contacts will each demand more and more of our attention during everyday activities.

Photo by nensuria/iStock/Thinkstock

With smartphones, social media, sensor networks, robotics, virtual worlds, and big data analysis, our relationship with technology is becoming more and more intimate: We are becoming techno-people, or cyborgs. These changes are a subset of the Information Revolution, which in a new report my colleagues and I have termed the “intimate-technological revolution.” Whereas the raw materials of the Industrial Revolution were cotton, coal, and iron ore, the raw material of the intimate-technology revolution is us: our bodies, thoughts, feelings, preferences, conversations, and whereabouts.

As with the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution can destabilize the institutions and social arrangements that hold our world together. At stake here are the core attributes on which our social, political, and economic worlds are built: our individual freedom, our trust in one another, our capacity for good judgment, our ability to choose what we want to focus our attention on. Unless we want to discover what a world without those intimate attributes is going to be like, it is vital that we develop the moral principles to steer the new intimate-technological revolution, to lead it in humane ways and divert it from dehumanizing abuses. That is our moral responsibility.

I suggest this proposition: Let us accept that we are becoming cyborgs and welcome cyborgian developments that can give us more control over our own lives. But acceptance of a cyborg future does not equal blind embrace. We need to retain a healthy degree of wildness, cockiness, playfulness, and sometimes annoying idiosyncrasy. We should aspire to be wild cyborgs. The challenge will be to apply intimate technology in such a way that we become human cyborgs. I propose that we adhere to the following seven theses as a guide to our interactions with technology.

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1. We need to keep our social and emotional skills on a high level.

We all know that if we don’t exercise our physical body we will lose strength and stamina. This is also true for our social and emotional skills, which are developed and maintained through interaction with other people. We are now entering a stage in which technology is taking on a more active role in the way we interact, measuring our emotions and giving us advice about how to communicate with others. To stay human, we have to keep our social and emotional skills, including our ability to have trust in people, on a high level. If we don’t do that, we run the risk that face-to-face communication may become too intimate an adventure and that our trust in other people will be defined and determined by technology.

2. The acts of loving, parenting, caring for, and killing must remain the strict monopoly of real people.

The history of industrial advance has also been a history of machine labor replacing human labor. This history has often been to our benefit, as drudgery and danger have been shifted from humans to machines. But as machines acquire more and more human characteristics, we must collectively start addressing the question of whether all the kinds of human activities that could be outsourced to the machines should be outsourced. I believe we should not outsource to machines certain essential human actions, such as killing, marriage, love, and care for children and the sick. Doing so might provide wonderful examples of human ingenuity but also the perfect formula for our dehumanization.

3. Without privacy, we are nothing. Our data should therefore belong to us.

Data about our actions and decisions are continuously captured and funneled by commercial companies, state authorities, and fellow citizens. Many people have unwittingly donated their social data to big companies in return for social media services. The large data owners say that’s not bad, and many users just parrot those words because they “have nothing to hide.” But if that is true, why do these same people lock their front door and not talk publicly about their credit card security code? Over the coming years, the way we will deal with our biological data, generated for example by smartphones and exercise monitors, provides the litmus test for whether we will be able to keep alive the concept of privacy and ensure that our physical and mental integrity are vouchsafed.

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