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Not Giving Up
Jamais Cascio   Jul 1, 2011   Open the Future  

What both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution usually miss is that emerging technologies will, as always, make us who we are—make us more human.

About ten years ago, I found myself sitting on the floor of my San Francisco Bay Area apartment, hoping that the call I was on wasn’t going to drop yet again. At the other end of the line was a Seattle public radio station, hosting a live debate/conversation between me and computer scientist Bill Joy on the question of whether our technologies were going to kill us; at that point, my main concern was whether our technologies would even work.

Joy had recently published his infamous “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” essay in Wired, and was still charged with the fiery nihilism of his argument that we are less than a generation away from nano-, bio-, and info-technologies that would fundamentally transform — in a bad way — human society and the human species. Joy was convinced that these emerging technologies would cause our extinction, and that the only hope for humanity was to give up entirely on these innovations.

failJoy was suffering from the same repeated disconnection problem I was wrestling with, but didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of the situation: here he was arguing that all-powerful technologies on the near horizon would inevitably destroy us, even while a ubiquitous and more-than-a-century-old technology remained stubbornly unreliable.

It’s a theme that would recur in countless arguments and debates I’d find myself in over the years. Usually, my sparring partner would claim (like Joy) that transformative technologies were about to sweep away human civilization, eliminating our humanity if they don’t destroy us completely. The only weak hope we might have would be to get rid of them — call this the Rejectionist perspective.

Occasionally, however, the claim would be that transformative technologies were about to sweep away human civilization and replace it (and eventually us) with something better. This future was being driven by forces beyond our understanding, let alone control — call this one the Posthumanist argument. Each claim is a funhouse mirror of the other: We are on the verge of disaster or on the verge of transcendence, and the only way to hold on to our humanity in either case would be to disavow what we have made.

And they’re both wrong. More importantly, they’re both dangerous.

Our technologies are not going to rob us (or relieve us) of our humanity. Our technologies are part of what makes us human, and are the clear expression of our uniquely human minds. They both manifest and enable human culture; we co-evolve with them, and have done so for hundreds of thousands of years. The technologies of the future will make us neither inhuman nor posthuman, no matter how much they change our sense of place and identity.

The Rejectionist and Posthumanist arguments are dangerous because they aren’t just dueling abstractions. They have increasing cultural weight, and are becoming more pervasive than ever. And while they superficially take opposite views on technology and change, they both lead to the same result: they tell us to give up.

By positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, these arguments tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.

Today, Rejectionists like writer Nicholas Carr and MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle argue passionately that a new wave of digital technologies is crippling our minds and breaking our social ties. Their solution is to (paraphrasing the words of William F. Buckley) “stand athwart history yelling Stop!” While their visions are less apocalyptic than Joy’s tirade, they’re more directly relevant for many people, and ultimately have the same ends.

The Posthumanist side is no less active. The godfather of the concept, technologist Ray Kurzweil, continues to churn out books and interviews telling us that the Singularity is near, a claim that seems to have special attraction for many tech-savvy young men. But like the Rejectionist perspective, Posthumanist arguments have mutated into new forms linked to current debates. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and currently on the board of directors at Facebook), for example, insists that his investments in Singularity technologies will allow him to create a future devoid of politics — and arguing, infamously, that true freedom is incompatible with democracy.

Technology is part of who we are. What both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution miss is something both subtle and important: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are—make us human. The definition of Human is no more fixed by our ancestors’ first use of tools, than it is by using a mouse to control a computer.

What it means to be Human is flexible, and we change it every day by changing our technology. And it is this, more than the demands for abandonment or the invocations of a secular nirvana, that will give us enormous challenges in the years to come.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


“ he was arguing that all-powerful technologies on the near horizon would inevitably destroy us, even while a ubiquitous and more-than-a-century-old technology remained stubbornly unreliable.”

Your article has downplayed the dangers of technology too much.  The new technologies at the time which were tried out in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the U.S. remains the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in war) certainly were reliable.  What if Hitler had access to this technology?

The fact that society is rife with inequality and hence power struggles, is why the development of even more powerful technologies means an ever great threat of global conflagration.  This is what Joy was writing about.  The solution of course is not to stop the development of technology but deal with the power issue.

Yes, the End is still a very great possibility with the amount of disgruntled folks around and is very nigh.  Don’t take this situation lightly.

@Mike…Yeah I’d kind of noticed that as well!!

@Jamais…I’m inclined to agree with Mark here. With the dangers of defeatism needs to be balanced the dangers of complacency. There are an awful lot of very dystopic futures out there, and if we want to aim for the futures we actually like then we need to (i) define, discuss and agree on what they are, and (ii) be aware of the risks and take steps to avoid them.

I also don’t believe that posthumanists generally believe that being “posthuman” is necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand I think there is a linguistic (semantic) issue here: how exactly do we want to use the word “human”, and at what point (if at all) does some future being become so far removed from what we currently regard as “human” that it makes more sense to call him/her/it “posthuman”. I *can* buy the idea that embracing technology as a (potentially) humanising force, rather than “post-” or “dehumanising” force, might be self-fulfilling in the best kind of way.

I think about just that more & more due to observing more of the Clockwork Orange sort of youths (‘white trash’, et cetera); however they are inchoate-nihilistic rather than totalist-oriented… not quite as bad as the characters (fictional, naturally) in the film Clockwork Orange. Real-life dystopians are not threatening as much as they cause me to doubt a higher purpose in communicating, in ethics, and so forth; they cause me to consider the possibility of progress being material but at this time—and for the foreseeable future—little or nothing more. In fact I am obsessed with it, being as it exists in every community, not remote in another region. But this would be to reference a dystopia more benign and disheartening instead of malignant and ominous.
A slouching towards dystopia rather than a goosestepping towards dystopia.

@post-post…yes I agree that’s a possibility. In a sense we’re living in dystopia already (it’s hardly a perfect world), and one scenario is that we just sink gently further in, becoming materially richer but spiritually (whoops! I used that word again: well let’s say “emotionally” then) poorer as we go.

But: this is not inevitable! The malignant and ominous threats are real, and they can happen. Conversely, we can still manage to steer our way through these threats and out of this gentle slide towards spiritual annihilation. There are positive processes, and if we focus on those - rather than allowing ourselves to obsess about the evidence we see around us suggesting a slide towards disheartening dystopia - then surely we increase the chances of doing so. And have more fun in the process, I would have thought.

Right as Rain. Yet subjectively it does appear much fighting has to be done, because unfortunately many power-seekers only respect people who fight back—but we try not to instigate the fighting unless there is a compelling reason. Don’t know what it is like in England; here in America if another mediocre GOP president is elected next year (say if the economy is tepid) then time to go on the spiritual warpath. We DO at least have to be vigilant 24/7, even at the risk of being suspicious… however it goes without saying it must be reined in so paranoia is not the result.
Will relate to what we go into above: one reason many youths are so nihilistic is their elders (plus their peers) are inculcating them with bad memes: misinformation/disinformation—so in one sense why ought not they rebel? naturally, there exist a certain number of bad seeds, congenital criminals; yet criminal gangs are also a reflection of the disingenuous/conniving substrate around them. It is of course very complicated.
All the same, the outcome will be though worse than the panglosses predict, better than what a glum person thinks it will be. During WWII many noncombatants had great fun; I remember the Vietnam-era, it was only really bad (at least in the West and not in ‘Nam!) for the boys drafted. So it comes down to the Bell Curve: a minority live hideous lives; a minority live literally Wonderful lives; the majority are pension plan poodles living lives of quiet desperation.

Indeed. I’m not against fighting, not at all. Not being willing to fight is in itself a way of giving up. And by the way we shouldn’t wait for a Republican US president before we go on the spiritual warpath: we should fight false assumptions and limiting beliefs whereever we encounter them. At least that’s what I try to do.

I like your point about nihilistic youths rebelling against the “bad memes” and the disingenuous/conniving substrate around them. From that perspective I think the single most important answer is *authentic communication*. I’ve recently developed a theory that here in Europe people in the South tend to lie about facts, while people in the North tend to lie about feelings. It’s a gross generalisation of course, but gross generalisations can be useful as long as we don’t take them too seriously. We should strive to communicate in such a way that we lie (not least to ourselves) about neither facts nor our feelings. And always strive to be very clear, but also flexible, about what we want, and ready to make constructive suggestions. (Preferably new ones, that the other side hasn’t already rejected.)

Not sure whether youths are nihilistic or merely frustrated with their own impotence to insight change? But boy, are they lazy! Everyone, where ever you go wants, demands, something for nothing! Youths demand your respect, yet offer you none. And yet “They have never had it so good”. Technology has transformed and provided and the lazy sheeple have grabbed and craved and demanded, and gone forth and multiplied, without so much as a moments Self-reflection nor thought for others - and all the while half the world is starving and suffering!

“You seem angry? Frustrated? What is it that you want?” The answer is mostly that they do not know, only that they want?

What we humans need is purposeful direction, personal development and self worth - the devil makes work of idle hands so they say.

Whilst the power elite are quite content to watch the world burn - until? It begins to affect themselves? And politicians? Why they are just plain incompetant!

A bit heavy for a Sunday, I know!

“And yet ‘They have never had it so good’ “

The fact you placed the above in parenthesis means you are hedging; plus you correctly reference the power elites without perhaps realizing that very power means youths are expected to… what? you tell us. Since they are being marginalized to a certain degree and getting such bad info from their elders & peers, how can they function the way you might want them to (without even your going into detail). Somewhat GOP in tone on your part; “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, little puppets of ours”
So please don’t be defensive- merely answer what it is you expect youths to do if they are manipulated and being given bad info.

@ Post..

What do I expect from others, and youths? Why I expect them not to be misdirected and kept A-mused, to Self-reflect and to think for themselves; to not be lazy, and “to be the change they wish to see in the world” – in short, I expect not a single thing more nor less than I would expect from either you or I?

Youths may “feel” marginalized, yet when they stop their clockwork habits of vandalism, beating up vagrants and stabbing each other to highlight their disgruntlement with social order, and stop to think critically about more than just their “mobile devices” and personal gratification, and aspire to some real political change, then they may just realise that people are listening, (of course I paint with a broad brush, not all individuals are lacking in critical thinking – and was it not the same for all of us when we were teenagers, angst is customarily frowned upon and dismissed as purely irrational?)

Mine is not to manipulate, I despise Machiavellian manoeuvring, and I always assume that “every” individual has the wits to realize their potential to “incite” change, and to help quash this enduring status quo and socio-economic divisive world order.

The quotation, “They have never had it so good”, is not used here as a bourgeois comment, but to highlight the nature of our selfish and ungrateful and unaspiring modern societies. Only individuals have “insight” to change, and incite change, (beginning within themselves). Society is the sloth that opposes change? Often we find ourselves confronted with the lame comment, “you can’t change the world”, or “no man can change the world”, when in fact it is precisely the opposite!

This individual “will to action” contemplated and enacted by everyone is precisely what does incite change, and is currently transforming the middle east and toppling dictatorships – it is individuals who act! It is individuals who must think for themselves, and take personal responsibility not to be misdirected and misinformed.

Quote – “Somewhat GOP in tone on your part; “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, little puppets of ours”

This is not my meaning at all – please note my political position has not changed, and I continue to profess the “middle way”. I continue to profess that we may transform the politics that we already have to build the future change that is required now more than ever before, a hybrid if you will, of libertarian-socialism, (if I must give it a label?)

Consumerism and social needs will not disappear, but they may be transformed to create a new world society – where individuals take personal ownership, not only for their own happiness and gratification, but of their responsibilities to others and to peace, harmony, unity and cohesion. Is this what people mean by a “Big Society”?

It’s a shame that the GOP in the US has such a stranglehold and patent on libertarianism – you should snatch it back as they appear to have no right to stake ownership of any political philosophy, and by way of polarising other free thinkers and marginalising more socialist ideals.

Anyways.. Happy independence day to all in the US, and a happy US “dependence” day to all of the rest of us!


Not all youths are Clockwork Orange-types, but though a substantial proportion of youths (and hoodlums come in all ages, such as for instance in the Cosa Nostra) are bad guys, some of those have been badly treated—albeit they are legally culpable for their misdeeds.
However they are not culpable for the errors of their elders: if say the outcome in Afghanistan were to be another Cambodia bloodbath (not that I am predicting that), youths are not to be blamed in any way.
What is grating is America’s Ross Perot mentality of treating everything as business. Perhaps most is business—as Coolidge said, the business of America is business—it wont change much for decades. But treating education as business? young students as inventory? and the GOP blames it all by using the catch-all epithet ‘liberal’.

What our technologies are doing is enabling humanity to abandon the masks we have always worn and become truly ourselves. We are creating a world filled with Krell machines, and will no longer have a choice about facing our demons of the ID.

We can’t live today’s lives utilizing tomorrow’s tech.

Lisa: It’s awful being a kid. No one listens to you.
Granpa Simpson: It’s rotten being old. No one listens to you.
Homer: I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to my suggestions, no matter how dumb my they are.

Homer: Everytime I learn something new, it pushes something old out of my brain.

Homer: I guess some people never change. Or, they quickly change and then quickly change back.

Homer: I agree with you in theory Marge. In theory communism worked. In theory.

Since the dawn of man things have been getting better for intelligent life but worse for all things natural.  I don’t think that trend will change any time soon.  I think technology will continue to advance but it won’t become conscious or self-determined any time soon, and that we’ll use technology to engineer nature to our benefit (as best we can).  We’ll lose naturally evolved biodiversity and replace it with intelligent design. 

And male pattern baldness will be a thing of the past.

@CygnusX1 I agree wholeheartedly about people taking personal ownership (youth’s in particular) to claim the future they want.  I think part of the issue of not being able to verbalize or visualize what they want comes from a consumerist culture that has told them their whole lives what they want and need.  One of my favorite quotes “You are more than the sum of what you consume”.  I think that the last generation or 2 have been horribly affected by the consumer driven mentality, perhaps we need to find a way to shift the overall paradigm beyond consumption to actual being and awareness.  But it is a very tall order and it often requires a full media disconnect.

@ Pendula..

Yes indeed we all, (youths included), need to take time to “disconnect” from consumerism and to reflect and touch base with that fundamental question, “who am I? Am I more than the products that I want/pursue? Do I rely on others/peers/consumerism to define who I am?” - I believe identity crises lies at the heart of existential angst and frustrations?

And I also believe there is purposeful and sinister “mass” manipulation by the Capitalist system elite to maintain the status quo that benefits them. What better way to keep the masses divided, A-mused, distracted and dis-orientated from critical thinking, than through purposeful mis-direction using consumerism and overwhelming “choices”!

When we sit in the park and just take time to reflect and “observe” nature and rest our weary consumer minds, we usually feel less stressed and more peaceful and more empowered. These are the things that really matter to us? The things we already possess by default?

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