Are we heading down the wrong path?
Philosophers like to question everything and many of them love a bit of a moan. Much writing about contemporary culture reads as a lamenting of the youth of today; a claim that things were better before, that we've lost our way.
What has changed?
In premodern times things were clear: authority came from God. In modern times things changed but reason took over as the ultimate source of authority. Now, in postmodern times, anything goes. Any or no source of authority can now be accepted. Absolute truth has been abandoned and we can be what we want to be. We are no longer defined by our birth status or biological makeup and this has created progress in many ways. One is no longer limited by being a peasant, a woman or gay for example, we have been liberated from the confines of the past and we can be more authentic than ever before.
But are our lives actually more real, more authentic or have we lost touch with reality? Have social and technological changes alienated us from reality and in turn ourselves and each other?
The controversial philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard claimed that postmodern society is characterised by Hyperreality, an age of simulation in which the real no longer exists. Celebrity culture, pornography, computer games, news reports and all media contribute to a manufactured world which has now become our world. The media is an orchestrated spectacle, manipulated by power-players with a set agenda. Wars are staged, politicians are lying to us and the smoke screens are pulled by diverting our attention from this atrocity to the war on terrorism / drugs / immigration.
Is Baudrillard right?
If he is, things are only going to get worse as technology advances. The psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that we have become isolated from ourselves and each other as our reliance on technology has increased. We are increasingly incapable of solitude, turning to our mobile devices the second we are alone. Our online lives and identity can be edited, perfected and controlled. Since we cannot exert the same level of control over our real lives, we prefer to be online. It is easier and safer and machines are always there for us. Turkle’s view is pessimistic but most of us can relate to at least some of what she says. Perhaps we are losing a grip on reality as our real lives take up less and less of our day.
Second Life: “Finally, love your friends, love your body and love your life.”
Should we allow science and technology a totally free reign in its advances?
It may be time to stop and ask some serious questions about the impact which technology is having on humanity. Increasingly, humans are losing their jobs as they are being replaced by machines. Are we willing to favour profit and efficiency over human flourishing?
Are we going to allow robots to replace humans in parenting or caring for the elderly? Proposals for robots to care for the elderly are already on the table. Turkle’s studies have shown that mimicked empathy by machines has the same effect on us as real human empathy. The elderly might be tricked into perceiving their care from robots as real but is this ethical? Should we choose what is cheap and convenient over what is right?
Will we get to the point where we prefer sex, even marriage with robots over humans? Sexbots (robots humans have sex with) have been around for over two decades but they are entering a new age. As Matt McMullen, creator of RealDoll says, “…the goal, the fantasy, is to bring her to life”. Many people feel uncomfortable with the use of sexbots, but why? Is their use harmless fun? Is it adultery, if you’re married? We need to stop and ask these questions.
Are we rendering ourselves obsolete?
Alan Turing explored this question in the 1950s by tricking humans communicating with machines into thinking they were communicating with other humans. More than six decades on, have we now totally lost the ability or even desire to know who we are communicating with, whether they are real, whether we are real?
Technology has made our lives easier, longer and more interesting. It has improved efficiency, healthcare, access to knowledge and so much more.
But technology is also alienating us from ourselves, each other and reality. This matters. We will not have the answers unless we ask the questions. We need to stop and think.