Are ecology and technology competing myths?

by Ilia Delio

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Nature and technology are at odds today. “Nature is not an object that we must strive to overpower by our inventiveness,” scientist Alfred Kracher writes, “rather we ourselves are part of nature and need to acknowledge nature’s autonomy for the sake of our own survival.” Kracher argues that ecology and technology form competing myths and we are caught between these myths today. Ecology says that we belong to a household of relationships, while technology says we have the power to create and invent ourselves beyond our biological limits. 

In her book Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle says that computer technology is changing the landscape of human relations. What was considered normative among older generations such as personal friendship, dating, conversation and phone calls is becoming obsolete among the youth, who can no longer distinguish between real and simulated reality. People are frightened by the world we've made, she states. The economy isn't going right; global warming continues. We celebrate our technologies because people imagine that science and technology will be able to get it right. Technology provides a ray of hope that we can be saved from destruction.

Computer technology emerged in the mid-20th century at the end of two world wars. Some scholars speculate that we invested in computer technology our hopes and dreams, including our religious desires. The world wars and holocausts of the 20th century showed the inability of world religions to transform the world into a human community of justice and peace. Computer technology, however, emerged with salvific power. According to Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel technology, computer technology is developing exponentially; every two years the amount of computer processing power is doubling. The emergence of quantum computers will soon quadruple available information. The amount of media that now flows to individuals and households is about 6.9 million gigabytes a year. By 2015 the average American will consume 15.5 hours of media daily via television, radio, phone and computer. Philosopher Carl Mitcham notes, “A thousand or two thousand years ago the philosophical challenge was to think nature – and ourselves in the presence of nature. Today the great and the first philosophical challenge is to think technology . . . and to think ourselves in the presence of technology.”

The computer has given rise to a new digitized human being who is more at home in the presence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality than among flowers and trees. Children are now spending their formative years online, and recent studies show that excess computer usage is rewiring the brain. Neuropsychologist Charlotte Tomaino describes a new type of compulsive disorder called OCD or “obsessive checking disorder,” which is the obsession of checking emails. Computer dependence is resulting in brain fatigue, memory loss, impatience, irritability, computer addiction and sleep deprivation. Children are suffering from nature deprivation, as well as an increased sense of loneliness and abandonment, as their parents are glued to electronic devices.  

Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that technology’s exponential growth will lead to a technological singularity, a point of transition when a machine-human hybrid with human-like intelligence and self-awareness will emerge and transcend the human species, radically changing civilization. This new “posthuman” species will be marked by unprecedented physical, intellectual and psychological capacity; we will be self-programming, self-constituting, potentially immortal and unlimited individuals. Kurzweil anticipates that machine-dependent humans will transcend death possibly by “neurochips” or brain downloading. As we move beyond mortality through computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file.

This futuristic “post-biological” computer-based immortality is also envisioned by Hans Moravec who claims that the advent of intelligent machines (Machina sapiens) will provide humanity with “personal immortality by mind transplant.” Moravec dreams of a world where it will be possible to create multiple copies of oneself, each experiencing different things and then merging memories with other copies and other persons: “Concepts of life, death, and identity will lose their present meaning as our mental fragments and those of others are combined, shuffled, and recombined into temporary associations.” What we once described as biological life is now viewed as information, which can repackaged in new mediums. Biology was never destiny, one computer scientist wrote, chips are destiny.

The term “transhumanism” refers to technologies that can improve mental and physical aspects of the human condition such as suffering, disease, aging and death. Transhumanism is the belief that humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation, favoring the use of science and technology to overcome biological limitations. Transhumanists look to a postbiological future where super informational beings will flourish and biological limits such as disease, aging and death will be overcome. Many transhumanists feel that religion has stifled human potential to invent and create. Their motto is “Technology will fulfill what religion promises.” We are now a chip away from salvation, immortality and personal happiness.

Ecology tells us we are part of the web of life, while computer technology promises to liberate humans from the burden of earthly life, orienting us toward a new artificial cyber world. Ecology speaks to us of our deep interrelatedness within nature, and technology lures us to become something other than nature; to transcend the limits of nature. The human person, wedded to the artificial screen, is caught between care for the earth and flight from the world. We are simultaneously connected and disconnected. As we engage in our social Internet worlds, sitting before an artificial screen in a room with artificial lighting connected to one another through bits of information, we sit alone. In the near future, we will be able to attend a meeting in Singapore while sitting at home in Washington, D.C., because the oculus rift, a set of computer goggles, will make it impossible to distinguish virtual reality from real time; the brain will be tricked into conceiving the virtual as real.

What drives the need for faster and more efficient electronic devices? There seems to be a deep need in culture for connectivity, a need fulfilled in the past by the local church. It is interesting to note that as Internet life and social media have increased exponentially, church attendance has thinned out. Where once the church was the gathering space for community, now the gathering space is electronic and community is global.

Yet, it is community at the touch of a button or “the illusion of a managed grace,” as bioethicist Ron Cole-Turner states. Technology is not out of control because it is a real power, Cole-Turner writes, but because we cannot control what needs control, namely, ourselves. Computer technology has given rise to a new cyberplatonism, a dualism of body and soul where the mind is in virtual reality and the body is in physical space. One has only to take note of electronic devices today in restaurants, shopping malls and other public spaces. Biological, face-to-face conversation is no longer desirable; now one texts or tweets. The electronic device interfaces human language in a way that the device is an extension of the self. We are on a threshold between biological relatedness and electronic-human matrices and can no longer discern where the real ends and the virtual begins. Technology is distorting ecology.

Technology promises a world liberated from suffering and death; yet nature means natural wildness, biodiversity and abundance. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies, a creation that is somehow richer because it interacts more intimately with a human person. When the artificiality of a random number algorithm, such as a computer game, replaces the surprises of natural richness, we lose something of human life. We lose the sense of what it means to be created, dependent, contingent and finite. A planet ruled by predictability where all contingency is eliminated is also a planet dominated by unchecked evil. If we can control our relationships, our loves and our dislikes, we not only control evil unwittingly but we can become evil unknowingly. Harmony requires wildness and the unpredictability of nature, the contingency that makes the world what it is – a sense of astonishment, wonder and awe.

Earth is a planet with promise insofar as God continues to draw this cosmos into new life in and through us humans. Do we still believe in the power of God to do new things or have we transferred divine power to our technological creations? Technology only has the value we assign to it. What do we want with our technologies and why are we so enamored by them? Transhumanists see technology supplanting religious values, but can we see technology as part of God’s ongoing creation? Philip Hefner writes: “When we participate in this drive for new possibilities, we participate also in God.” A conscious use of technology requires cyber-breaks, time in the park with our devices turned off, so we can reflect on our inventions and ask, is computer technology making us post-human or more human? 

[Ilia Delio, OSF, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., is Haub Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include From Teilhard to Omega: Cocreating an Unfinished Universe and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.]