“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” This truism—by the media-scholar John Culkin about the work of Marshall McLuhan—is more potent than ever in the age of data and algorithms. The technology is having a profound effect on how people live and think.
Some of those changes are documented in “Re-Engineering Humanity” by two technology thinkers from different academic backgrounds: Brett Frischmann is a law professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and Evan Selinger teaches philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Together, they explore how ordinary activities like clicking on an app’s legal terms are made so simple that it “trains” us to not read the contents. Over time, the authors fear that humans will lose their capacity for judgment, discrimination and self-sufficiency. Or, as Douglas Rushkoff, a tech writer, put it: “We should be less scared of robots than of becoming more robotic ourselves.”
The Economist’s Open Future initiative asked Mr Frischmann five questions about these dyspeptic themes. A lightly-condensed excerpt from the book, on Taylorism and its relevance to the algorithmic economy today, appears after his answers.
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The Economist: How is technology "re-engineering" humanity?
Brett Frischmann: Human civilisations have re-engineered humanity for millennia. “Humanity” is who we are, and are capable of being, within our built world. It’s reflected in the world we’re building for ourselves, our children, and future generations. Technology re-engineers humanity in part by affecting human capabilities and in part by shaping and constituting our values, beliefs, and shared commitments.
Our book is about how digital networked technologies coupled with sophisticated social engineering are re-engineering our world and humanity. Like the proverbial frogs in slowly warming water, we’re gradually being led to accept a world governed by supposedly smart tech. For the sake of convenience and cheap bliss, we surrender ourselves, follow scripts, and risk becoming indistinguishable from simple machines.