Does technology prevent us from developing as people?

A nation is born stoic and dies epicurean

— Will Durant

If we believe the Greek mythology, Prometheus couldn’t stand gods’ access to technology, symbolized by fire, and the continued existence of human being in a primitive state. So he decided to steal the “secret” of fire and pass it over to humans. Zeus, the leader of Olympian gods, in a jealous rage decided to sentence Prometheus to infinite torment for this transgression. He made Prometheus bound to a rock and has sent an eagle to eat his liver. The liver was in ancient Greece thought to be a seat of emotions, so the moral of the story might be that Zeus wanted to dampen down those emotions that gave rise to such a preposterous ambition.

But, I invite you to pause.

And wonder.

Perhaps Zeus punishment has materialized in every single one of us? If yes, then how? If no, are we close? What are we to do to save our essence? What to save humanity?

Oh ye Prometheus !

How grateful we are for ye stale the Divine Fire

Sad we are to see ye condemneth by gods

To see ye lifre eaten by an eagle

For you have lifer ús on cimbstán

Yielding ús hights far above beyond

Zeus selfbana

— 1st Hymn to Promotheus

Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan by Dirck van Baburen — 1623 (public domain)

From Homo sapiens to Homo deus

Modern humans have evolved roughly 200,000–300,000 years ago in Subsaharan Africa. We were living in small groups of hunter-gatherers and were concerned mainly with mere survival. What we might call today nice-to-have virtuous, was crucial for survival back then. Strength, resourcefulness, reliability, reciprocal altruism, mastery, care, and procreation were necessary for the survival of the early human groups. And this wasn’t something done out of choice. It was an imposed must because our ancestors had to face the three main whimsical killers that were utterly uncontrollable: hunger, disease, and war.

Conquering these three armageddons might have given us a sense of purpose and meaning. No wonder philosophers could say we are part of a divine plan. But we were very close to extinction. Genetic evidence suggests that we all are descendants of a group of 3,000–10,000 individuals from roughly 70,000 years ago which, according to Toba catastrophe theory, is explained by a massive reduction in human population size.

Fast forward to 2023. With still substantial exceptions here and there, we now have hunger, disease, and war under our thumb. Yes, it is true that we still see bloody conflict around the world (the Syrian war being a notable example), and people still die from cancer and HIV, but the situation isn’t as dire as even just 100 years ago. We have established global systems aimed at preventing self-destruction. We have discovered penicillin. And we can rapidly respond to COVID19 by rolling out a vaccination program at a quick pace.

Let’s walk through a use case that demonstrates our evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo deus.

Just in 1982, doctors had no idea what is responsible for Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease Syndrom (AIDS). Being diagnosed with this disease was a death sentence. In 1983 scientists discovered that HIV virus causes AIDS. And now in 2023 people diagnosed with the disease are (all things being equal) statistically predicted to lead long and healthy lives as long as they take anti-retroviral pills of Prometheus. Not only that. Even though a cure hasn’t been invented yet, post-exposure prophylaxis reduces the chance of infection by 95%+.

Now contrast that with the situation in XIV century. According to influential historian Noah Harrari in his book Homo deus, a little bacterium called Yersinia pestis has caused a reduction in the population of England from 3.7 million to 2.2 million between before and after the arrival of the black death.

Harrari, as a futurologist rather than a historian, argues that we are heading (and in a sense already are) in the state that made Zeus rage for Promethean sin: our desire for immortality which currently is an active pursuit as well as key for happiness.

Oh ye Prometheus !

With tis pilleth of magic

Me calamity will endth

Ye sacrifice will passeth down the age!

— 2nd Hymn to Promotheus

The irony of technological advancement

The above prelude wasn’t mere entertainment. I’m trying to see how we have arrived here and what are the consequences of technological development on the human condition.

The irony of technology is as follows:

  • (1) We have problems (e.g. some people are still dying from hunger)
  • (2) To solve these problems we need to make an effort and strive for excellence to get the desired result (e.g. find an algorithm that efficiently distributes food to all people given that current production levels exceed mouths to be fed)
  • (3) Problem-solving requires us to cultivate virtues and strong Ethos (e.g. train the mind to be able to concentrate for a long time and avoid short-term-dopamine- reward-circuitry-driven messing of our nervous system)
  • (4) Thanks to the virtues we are successful (e.g. there is no one on earth sleeping hungry anymore)
  • (5) There are no more problems to solve or we can delegate other people/entities to solve any remaining problems
  • (6) We can enjoy ourselves and happily put aside the virtues and Ethos that brought us here
  • (7) It’s time we put a VR set of the matrix of choice and have some fun

Do you follow the logic and can see the paradox of modern existence? For instance, 3 months down the line, instead of me excruciating my brain to come up with the words that you currently read I can subscribe to some GPT3 service that will write an article for me. In the meantime, I’ll gladly watch my favorite Netflix series. This isn’t SciFi anymore. Read this article which was written by GPT3 AI.

The Last Man

Nietzsche has alluded to the above paradox in Thus spoke Zarathustra and pointed on the distinction between the Übermensch and the Last Man. Who is the Last Man? It isn’t just a member of the herd. It is someone that has passed all the 7 steps above, or been born into step 7, and chose to lead a lenient, pleasure-seeking, and without any anxiety life. Life without problems. He has transformed into a creature without strength, resourcefulness, or any form of mastery. The only thing he can do is click order on his Uber Eat app.

Why, why, why ye Prometheus!

Why thus!

Ye fire has cursedth mine til end!

Why, why, why?

— 3rd Hymn to Promotheus

Singularity as a curse in disguise

I have started with two odas of praise to Prometheus. But you can read above that I end it with the prayer of a curse. As I ask myself why Prometheus, despite the hopes he has created through Yielding ús hights far above beyond, actually might have given us technology that cursedth mine til end. The technological advancements we see might have elevated us to the status of gods. We might even invent immortality soon. Who knows?

But let me ask you this.

Who are you? What is your true sense? And couldn’t it be that technology has obstructed your development as a human being?

The light at the end of the tunnel

I have no doubt that the world as we know it today, is full of Last Men. This might sound rather gloomy and pessimistic. But I think it doesn't have to be like that. It all boils down to what choices we make and how we use and interact with technology. I rather like Garry Kasparov’s TED lecture title Don’t fear intelligent machines. Work with them. We need to keep searching for the answer to the question of who am I truly and act accordingly.

(Thank you oracle of Delphi and Socrates for your Know thyself dictum)

Having said that, I’d like to emphasize that the risks of humanity descending are high, not low. Many futurologists including the author of Homo deus, believe that in the future we might have a class of economically (and militarily of course) useless class of people that can leverage technology 100% to substitute labor that they would have provided otherwise. With a universal basic income, people may end up in evolutionary auto-pilot and consciousness-less and hence with no true purpose and meaning.

So it is more important than ever to be aware of these trends and aware of ourselves so we can grow, develop and flourish as human beings living their full potential.

O ye Prometheus!

Ye haventh answered my why question

Thus I turn to Sisyphus

In whose suffering

I thus see the greatesth of meanings

— 4th Hymn to Promotheus

Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders and Prometheus being tormented by an eagle sent by Zeus to eat his liver as punishment for giving mankind the gift of fire — c.570–560 BC (public domain)

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