The Futurist Interviews the authors of The Techno-Human Condition

Technology is progressing, but is society? Arizona State University engineer Braden Allenby and Arizona State science and society professor Dan Sarewitz, authors of The Techno-Human Condition, worry about humanity’s capacities to keep up with innovation. The authors (speaking separately) discuss their book and their concerns during this interview with Rick Docksai, a staff editor for THE FUTURIST.

Rick Docksai: A message that I took from your book is the necessity of coping mechanisms. We humans need to be psychologically prepared for the radical innovations coming our way. How psychologically ready are we as a society now?

Braden Allenby: At the level of a private-sector firm, if you don’t innovate as rapidly as possible, you’re going to lose your market share to the ones that do. Because they have to innovate, they will adapt to change more rapidly.

But in general, individuals are having a hard time managing the rate of change, and society is having a hard time. I think many people meet the uncertainty and discomfort that characterize rapid, accelerating change by retreating into relatively rigid belief systems or apathy.

Daniel Sarewitz: The more people feel knocked back on their heels by techno-social change, the more they seem to be retreating into the world views that make them less able to understand and respond to the change.

Docksai: So in general, change brings out reactionary forces that resist the change. But how does that set us apart from past eras—haven’t there been Luddites and technophobes in every century?

Allenby: What is different is that we’re seeing technological change across the entire frontier of technology. The other thing is that the rate of change is more rapid than ever before and still accelerating. For those two reasons, our situation and the issues we face are different.

Sarewitz: Everyone is awash in information. You can participate in everything and are totally connected—comment on blogs, visit chat forums, et cetera—but on the other hand, there seem to be forces beyond anybody’s control.

Docksai: Technology and medicine both increase individuals’ performance capacity, as your book notes. With increased performance capacity comes increased expectations, however. People are expected to produce more. What is this doing to our stress levels?

Allenby: For a digital immigrant, trying to stay networked and multitasking can be very stressful, while, for a digital native, that level of information flow may be not just comfortable, but necessary to feel psychologically connected to others. For many people, change can be stressful, regardless of productivity demands. In the longer run, human psychology will be increasingly subject to deliberate engineering, raising the question of whether stress can be designed to more preferable levels.

Sarewitz: The connectedness of the wired world adds enormously to my stress levels, but I doubt my kid would look at it that way. I’m more skeptical than Brad that we’ll ever be able to finely tune such attributes like stress levels on a population-wide basis, but I agree with his general point that psychological diversity is clearly an asset for the species.

Docksai: This makes me wonder if human cognitive capacity will grow over time. I’m thinking of the Flynn Effect, the documented increase in worldwide IQ scores over time.

Allenby: We’re all used to thinking of cognition as an individual function. But with augmented cognition being built into weapons systems, and car companies building automated cognition into automobiles, and Google being a repository for human memory, we’re diffusing cognition across integrated human technology networks.

Cognition may be going away from the individual and more toward a techno-human network function. The question of individual evolution is moot. What we need to understand is how cognition occurs in these networks.

Sarewitz: We have the capacity to generate and process much more information, but there's a lot more information that doesn’t get dealt with. It just sits out there. I use my e-mail as an outsource memory for names because I can't remember them all. But it's countered by the fact that I'm overwhelmed and can't remember all my e-mails.

I don’t know if I want to say that we're getting more intelligent as a culture. I want to say we have different kinds of intelligence. Acting in the face of uncertainty and disagreement—that seems to be as difficult for us as ever.

Docksai: You discuss the prediction of average life spans surpassing 100. I see one plus in this: Society’s memory of history will improve. People whose perspective stretches back so many years would ideally represent a much-needed force for caution and for not repeating past mistakes. What influence do you see people with much higher longevity having in politics?

Allenby: I’m more inclined to suspect that a radical increase in longevity could lead to greater generational conflict, as older folks that have positions not only keep them, but try to impose their perspectives, and their views on technology, on younger cohorts. More “stop playing those computer games right now, young man!” seems probable.

Sarewitz: When we see more years of life, we also see more years of unhealthy life. Anyone who is middle aged is dealing with unhealthy parents and the slow decline that we all slowly go through. If current patterns are at all suggestive, then these increased healthy years will also be accompanied by increased unhealthy years. Dealing with the continual challenges of demographic change seems to be another aspect of the techno-human condition.