Memetic Evolution: The Post-Biological Paradigm

Who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?

It’s a complex, three part question that we may never be able to fully answer. We do, however, get closer every day. We build things. We revise them, and build them better. We make art to express ourselves, and wage war to defend ourselves. The world today is growing radically different than the world of the ancients – and even the world of our American pioneers. If one were to look at the charts and graphs scientists have developed to demonstrate our ever increasing technological prowess, they may find themselves startled and afraid. The charts are climbing through the roof, shifting towards an exponential trend of growth. Some argue that the Darwinian mode of genetic evolution is being replaced by a new form of evolution dubbed Memetic Evolution. Memes are human habits -art, music, literature, and all other facets of our culture. And our memes, it seems, are copying themselves at an alarming rate.

The time it takes to communicate a thought from one human being to another is shrinking exponentially. The activities of writing letters and sending telegrams have been replaced by the newer, faster methods of email and text messaging. What took a matter of weeks if not months a hundred years ago now takes a matter of minutes if not seconds. If one were to extrapolate that trend of growth into the future, surely in the next hundred years it seems that we may become able to communicate instantaneously, even telepathically.

Yet, in this human frenzy of growth and exploration, we have to occasionally stop and smell the roses. How did we get here in the first place? Why were humans blessed with the gift of knowledge, and the poor chimpanzee left to poke around in the dirt?

Granted, some have argued that chimpanzees and elephants exhibit traits of self awareness and consciousness. This was determined by a mirror test, in which a marking was made on the animal’s face, and consequently shown its own reflection. If the animal immediately began grooming the marking, scientists decided that it must be aware of itself. Yet are chimpanzees aware that humans are superior to them as a species? Do they regard us as we may regard aliens or religious figures, as supreme beings? “Oh dang, a human is coming, I better act busy, and make it look like I’m doing something important.” Regardless of their inner perceptions, all animals except humans lack the mental syntax required for a complex lingual system. We are able to communicate knowledge, information, thoughts, feelings, and emotions to one another through our languages. Yet, how did we get this way? Why are we the chosen ones, blessed with the power to ponder life, time, space and God? Why are we the cursed ones, forced to question our own existence and purpose on this planet, in this universe?

Our ancestors first began making music and art some 40,000 years ago. Was this a result of some divine entity imparting its wisdom into our souls? Probably not. Most researchers have come to agree that such a change took place over thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years worth of genetic mutations. Was it the fact that our brains grew to be much larger than our predecessors? That was also not the case. Neanderthals had a similar sized brain as the Cro Magnon man, yet displayed very little culture. The Cro Magnon man performed many rituals when one of their loved ones died. They places thousands of beads into the grave, and spent a large amount of time preparing the ceremony. Neanderthals, on the other hand, simply chucked the dead body into a pit. It seems that they had much less regard and understanding of life in this regard. They did not exhibit any signs of art, music, or any culture for that matter compared to the Cro Magnon man.

So then, what was it that set us apart? Why did we ascend to a higher state of existence compared to our animal neighbors? Perhaps it was not the actual size of our brains, but the wiring that gave us knowledge. Hunting was probably the primary reason we invented tools and communication. We designed, built, and redesigned stone tools until they gave us effective results. Then, we used methods of communication to impart this knowledge to our descendants. Then, while hunting, we developed signals and signs to aid in the kill. Thus, we began to devise hunting plans, and tactics. We began to work together. This would have eventually become language as we know it, when our first vocalizations could be heard echoing throughout the ancient landscape. A verbal language would have greatly sped up the communication process. That would have in turn allowed for more efficient hunting and gathering practices, as more knowledge would have been conveyed in a shorter amount of time. This would have resulted in more free time, which would have allowed hobbies like bead making and art to become commonplace.

Thus, the birth of culture. Bead making could have led to a value system, where beads were traded for goods and services. As time went on, our ancestors may have found gold and silver, and traded those. Money is born. The more money an individual had, the more power was associated with that person. Now we start getting into wars to gain more power, more control over land and hunting areas. People start to make more and more art and music so that they can forget about the wars, and the pain of lost loved ones. They may have found that while they were making music or art that time seemed to slow down, and they were able to connect with some hidden force that felt eternal, and more real than reality itself. For in those fleeting moments of creativity, they were becoming eternal by creating something that would live on long after they were gone. These ancestors of ours could connect with one another in ways the physical world could not have allowed them to in the past. Unbeknownst to them, they were building the framework of what would someday become society itself – a network of thought and culture.

Today, this network is more present than ever, and growing rapidly. Even though biologically we may be the same as we were some 50,000 years ago, our minds have expanded out into the universe, and deep into our own souls. As a race, we have become aware of our own limitations – time, space, and ourselves. And as we tirelessly work to break through these boundaries, we may not realize how similar the act of building a space shuttle is to building a stone axe. They are both tools we use to advance ourselves, and now more than ever, it feels as though we are on the verge of another mental big bang. Just as our ancestors broke through the barrier separating action from speech, we may be on the verge of breaking through the barrier that separated our bodies from our souls. For someday soon, we may truly get the chance to meet our true selves and shake our own hands. Someday soon, we may decide not to be human, or anything, at all.

 

Making Friends We Never Talk To: The Dangerous Social Effects Of Robotics

Sherry Turkle was recently interviewed by NPR on the podcast “Do We Need Humans?” with other fellow TED speakers.  What struck me as fascinating about this podcast is that she touches on a subject all of us are aware of but rarely talk about: Technology and relationships. More importantly, the social effects of technology. How is technology making us feel connected to each other, and is this a good thing?

baby seal
Wisdom falls on deaf ears: An elderly woman talks to a robotic baby seal for comfort.

Sherry begins by explaining something she saw one day that changed everything she believed. She was watching an elderly patient at a hospital interacting with a robot. It looked like a baby harp seal, and it had big, cute eyelashes. It responded to her language, and cheered her up. It comforted her. The older woman had lost a child, which could explain her longing for something to hold again. It made her feel understood. Sherry couldn’t believe how well she was responding to this robot, and realized the possibilities of this robot’s application.

“I felt profoundly depressed.  This was a tremendous emotional turning point in my research,” says Sherry.  She is now very worried about where this is all headed, and during her TED talk “Connected, but Alone?” she described it best:

“I felt myself at the cold, dark center of a perfect storm, in which we expect more from a technology relationship than we expect from each other.  I believe it is because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable.  We are lonely, but afraid of intimacy.  We are designing social networks that help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.  But we aren’t comfortable, and we aren’t in control. We are cheering on this emotional connection to a machine, but why are we outsourcing what defines us as people?”

When Sherry gave her TED talk the year before, however, it was like a public confessional – because the year before, she told us how amazing robots will become.

So what changed her mind?

“I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people about their plugged in lives.  These little devices are so psychologically powerful, they not only change what we do, they change what we are.  Some of the things we do with our devices are things we would have found odd only a few years ago.  People text during company board room meetings.  People have talked about the important skill of eye contact while you are texting.  We even text at funerals.  We remove ourselves from our grief and our revery, and go into our phones. Why does this matter? Because I think we are setting ourselves up for trouble, not only in how we relate to each other, but how we relate with ourselves.  People want to be  everywhere at the same time.  The thing that matters most to people is control of where they put their attention.”

couples texting in person
So close, yet so far away.

But what if someone is so lonely, they must resort to a device to help them feel better?  Certainly there are people who would otherwise be completely isolated from the outside world without technology.  Sherry understands that there are inherent benefits to these technologies, but in the future, why would we want to do that to ourselves?  Why would we intentionally construct false relationships?

When we construct robots, we are changing ourselves.  We must realize the needs we are serving and become aware of what these needs are.  Sherry wants to hear a more articulated conversation about these human needs.  “I always hear TED talks that talk about this and always end with people saying ‘we will become more human’ if we let these robots advance.  I’m not so sure.  Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot?  She deserves to have people around, and we need to hear the stories of her life to learn from her.”

“Technology is making the bid to redefine human connection.  How we care for each other and ourselves.  How we determine our values and our direction.  We have every opportunity ahead of us, and we have everything we need to start – each other.  We have the greatest chance of success if we recognize our vulnerability; that we listen when technology says it will take something complicated and make it simpler.  Our fantasies are costing us, and we need to find ways that technology can lead us back to our own lives and bodies.  Lets talk about how we can use digital technology, the technology of our dreams, to make this life a life we can love.”

We must find a balance between our technologic and the personal worlds as the lines increasingly blur. Social media profiles still leave much to the imagination, yet can provide more instantaneous information about a person than an average 5 minutes of small talk. Google Glass — which allows one to share videos, text, make calls and browse the web through the user’s eye — is an emerging technology that may prove beneficial in establishing the physical and internet-based demarcations … by completely eliminating those boundaries and turning an individual into a breathing, living embodiment of the internet. You could say we are becoming the internet. Or the internet is becoming us. Whichever you choose, there is a new age of interaction upon us, and we most certainly will have our share of growing pains. Perhaps some new device like Google Glass will help people learn to truly see through each other’s eyes…But most likely, you’ll just use it to watch the Lakers game during your next dinner date.

Do you think there are more pros or cons to social media? SHARE BELOW

 

About Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships with others, with ourselves, with it. Described as the “Margaret Mead of digital culture,” Turkle is currently focusing on the world of social media and sociable robots. In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation.

Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. But Turkle suggests that digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. She is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.