Monday, December 28, 2015

The Humanist Part of the Techno Dissent Discussion

by Gary Berg-Cross

I do like the term and think of myself as a humanist -  secular humanist. And in the Washington Post recent series on Tech Doubters kicked off by Joel Achenbach's THE RESISTANCE. I see that there may be an opportunity to get the humanist position, even the progressive, nature centered and deliberately rational, progressive secular view into the conversation.  At least this can be in regard to the human-technical interaction in society.

The article kicks off the issues thus way identifying people uncomfortable with how the internet and associated technology is influencing modern life.

"They are the digital dissenters.

They see tech companies tracking our every move.

They want to go back to the basics – to a world where the interests of

humans come before robots, algorithms and the needs of Silicon Valley.

 Meet the people on “Team Human."n.” █ 

From a distance I don't much object to this stance.  I don't like the invasion of privacy with companies (or governments) tracking our behavior etc. And I share the view of human values being central.  It is just that I also appreciate science and technology and perhaps want more thought to go into its use. Some of the critics do too and 
Achenbach starts introducing them like this:

"Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.

'I’m on Team Human!' author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk."

Well again, I agree with part of these critiques including the judgment that parts of our digital age has nightmare elements run by digital "robber barons" who mine data our personal info for profit. So it is not paranoid, that one of the tech skeptics, political activist Astra Taylor keeps duct tape over the camera lens on her laptop computer. Someone might be listening.

There are many people who have this view:

"You could fill a college syllabus with books espousing some kind of technological resistance. Start the class with “You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier), move on to “The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen), and then, to scare the students silly, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat)."

Also cited is Pope Francis' recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” which "contemplates the mixed blessings of technology." He acknowledges the marvels of modern technology such as the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper), but warns of potential dangers,unless technological development isn't been matched by "development in human values and conscience." There might be a spiritual ting to Francis' values though.

I might a bit more uncomfortable with the broad brush labeling of techno-skeptics as humanists. There are some qualifications to make along the way.  
I would agree with the point that humanism, and in particular a secular humanist position has potential here. There is something lost in blindly designing things for machine culture in an arms race, first to the market, winner take all style that we have. I would feel some affinity to both ‘believe’ in humanism and trust (well hope) in a fair view of technical innovation;which includes that humans find some meaning in through work (Jörns, 1997). As the article notes we currently have a problem here:

 “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings."

Yes, and humanist values could be the basis of doing this in a human friendly way.  The humanist movement, has what Roy Speckhardt calls a forward-thinking outlook with an emphasis on critical thinking and self-reflection. It also has a naturalist outlook which wouldn't want an intrusion of spiritual values into this conversation. So that type of humanism is what we want now.  It is more sophisticated than a human vs. computer labeled wrestling match. Secularism, understood as the dominance of naturalistic and scientific thought over supernatural explanations of reality, was seen as the future for America and might be seen in light of techno skepticism a solution again. What come along with a "progressive secularism" view is a belief-stance that human beings are alone in the world and must act responsibly by forming their ethics solely from their human experience, human reason and science (source Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.)

To me then is not an either machines/computers or us issue (human reason & science apply), although I can understand dissent in the face of an un-thought through tech "advance" imposed by a morals-free system.  Few of us want to be slippery sloped or bludgeoned into accepting an unacceptable future. The problem is as much a slow versus fast thinking for-profit style. In a deliberate manner we may be able to answer how humans and smart, communicating systems can usefully interact and profit all human life not just the masters.

It seems to me it also the values of a shallow capitalist culture (the robber baron image again) allowing tech use for company profit.  It is the old fire is good or bad depending on how you balance its use within a cultural system. We need reflection to do this.

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