Neurologist Laments Tech-Driven Brain Changes
Human identity, the idea that defines each and every one of us, could be facing an unprecedented crisis.
It is a crisis that would threaten long-held notions of who we are, what we do and how we behave. It goes right to the heart – or the head – of us all.
This crisis could reshape how we interact with each other, alter what makes us happy, and modify our capacity for reaching our full potential as individuals.
And it’s caused by one simple fact: the human brain, that most sensitive of organs, is under threat from the modern world.
Video games are weakening the ability to think for ourselves.
Unless we wake up to the damage that the gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains, we could be sleepwalking towards a future in which neuro-chip technology blurs the line between living and non-living machines, and between our bodies and the outside world.
It would be a world where such devices could enhance our muscle power, or our senses, beyond the norm, and where we all take a daily cocktail of drugs to control our moods and performance.
Already, an electronic chip is being developed that could allow a paralysed patient to move a robotic limb just by thinking about it.
As for drug manipulated moods, they’re already with us – although so far only to a medically prescribed extent.
Increasing numbers of people already take Prozac for depression, Paxil as an antidote for shyness, and give Ritalin to children to improve their concentration.
But what if there were still more pills to enhance or "correct" a range of other specific mental functions?
What would such aspirations to be "perfect" or "better" do to our notions of identity, and what would it do to those who could not get their hands on the pills? Would some finally have become more equal than others, as George Orwell always feared?
Of course, there are benefits from technical progress – but there are great dangers as well, and I believe that we are seeing some of those today.
This excerpt demonstrates how Susan Greenfield’s new book ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century tends toward an unscientific techno-alarmism. Written by an Oxford neurologist, the book proves a scientific education is not enough to prevent fear from overwhelming reason. A review of this book at New Humanist gives the nod to Greenfield’s credentials, but lambastes her lack of philosophical sophistication. Like others who get worked up over screen violence, Greenfield seems to ignore positive aspects of games such as motor skill and team building, and the idea that working out violent fantasies virtually can prevent them from being enacted in real life. The only favorable angle (mentioned in the Amazon capsule review) was her acknowledgment of the harmful effects of fundamentalism on the mind. But her vicious attack on video games and other entertainment options ignore the benefits of the sea-change involving former consumers entering the creative community through participatory feedback.
For a more realistic and hopeful view of this trend, I’m looking forward to checking out Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, discussing the expansive prospect of self-organizing communities built out of former passive content consumers. This new cognitive army has the potential to generate thousands of Wikipedia-like spontaneous open-source initiatives.
Greenfield also badly needs to read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Barring a global catastrophe, most of the changes to our brains she laments will certainly happen–and then some, and I would argue that’s a good thing. We need to dump the sentimental notion that somehow our unaltered humanity is something worth preserving. Technological development is on an irreversible course toward physical and mental enhancement and an interconnectedness we can’t even fathom. It represents the next step in human evolution, except this time we will boldly decide our own directions based on our individual priorities.
I’m continually amazed at how Luddites cling to ignorance and tradition. While technological progress certainly has its pitfalls, these must be weighed against the risk of failing to act. Our planet is beset with both severe structural problems and a burgeoning population. The same technology enabling changes to our brains also promises to revolutionize food and energy production as well as stabilizing greenhouse gases. Inaction or technological relinquishment will guarantee ever-worsening humanitarian crises, and could never be enforced in any case. Whatever can be done in terms of human enhancement will be done. And there will be accidents and mistakes–as with any new endeavor. We cannot eliminate risk. But we need to press on bravely into the terra incognita.
Sadly, technophobes spin every foray into these areas as some sort of existential threat. We should ignore them. The first salvo in this neo-Luddite rebellion was fired by Bill Joy in his infamous 2000 article Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. Greenfield mines the same rich vein of technophobia plundered by Joy. From the excerpt at least, she makes no new arguments, and shows no evidence of understanding even the concept of the Singularity. She seems to have a puritanical streak, fretting that we might be getting addicted to our machines or that (horrors) we might learn to derive direct pleasure from them and spiral down into a hedonistic cultural collapse. Sounds to me like an electronic version of the "Reefer Madness" hysteria.
We must come to terms with the fact that humans are absolutely nothing but very sophisticated machines. We are beginning to understand how those machines work and how to make them better. In the process we might also join ourselves with our artificial intelligence and become smarter, happier and experience more pleasure, and radically enhanced opportunities for still more progress. I’m always confounded that someone manages to turn that into a "bad thing." In the next decades, each of us will be faced with two choices: ride the wave or become obsolete.