Too much of a good thing?

Just back from a conference in Newcastle, England called Thinking Digital. It was a glimpse into the extraordinary ways that technology is going to reshape the future, revolutionizing every aspect of the way we work, play and live. It may even alter what it means to be human, as artificial intelligence catches up with the real thing and more and more gadgets – think medical nanobots patrolling the bloodstream or computer chips boosting the brain – are installed in our bodies. The most vivid picture of this sci-fi future was painted by Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and inventor, who appeared on stage as a ghostly apparition inside a slab of glass. He was thousands of miles away in California yet we could see and hear each other as if we were all in the same room. I found the crystal ball-gazing in Newcastle exhilarating, but also a bit troubling. It seems to me that as the rate of technological change accelerates, we urgently need to slow down and answer some crucial question, starting with: Do really want everything that technology can deliver and will all the advances be benign? Even as a technophile, I have some doubts. What happens to memory, patience and the journey of discovery when all human knowledge is instantly accessible from anywhere? What happens to human relations when you can download the full profile of anyone you meet and read it on a Terminator-like screen on your contact lens before speaking to them? And who gets to write that profile? Above all, what happens when we are constantly connected to the Internet and no longer have any time or space for silent, solitary reflection?

One reason for the global obesity epidemic is that our bodies were designed for a hunter-gathering society and are therefore highly efficient at storing excess calories as fat. Today, when calories are permanently on tap and there is less call for burning them off hunting and gathering, our waist-lines are ballooning. As I sat there in Newcastle, with my own waist expanded from the buffet lunch, it occurred to me that maybe the same analogy works for the high-tech revolution. We are hard-wired to be curious and to want to connect and communicate with others – and those are wonderful instincts. The trouble is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we don’t know when to stop. Just as we keep on eating even after our bodies have had enough food, we keep on texting, surfing and wilfing long after our minds have reached a frenzy of stimulation and distraction. The truth is that no matter how fast the technology becomes, the human brain is always going to need slowness. To rest and recharge. To think deeply and creatively – every artist, designer and inventor knows that deceleration is essential for the act of creation. We also need to slow down in order to look into ourselves and grapple with the big questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What is life really for? Nor is this a concern voiced only by monks and meditation gurus. Even the most gung ho geeks are starting to warn that being “always on” may not be the best thing for the human brain. Dipchand Nishar, the man in charge of wireless technology at Google, has said: “We had Generation X and Generation Y. Now we have Generation ADD.” And other high tech companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, are coming to similar conclusions.

Yet this is not a call for a Luddite backlash. Technology is not evil; on the contrary, it has mind-blowing potential to make the world a better place. But as we enter the era of what Kurzweil calls “exponential growth in technological advances,” the need for circumspection is greater than ever before. That means thinking hard about how best to apply each new technology rather than just automatically adopting it. Or put another way: As the pace of change quickens, we need to remember that some things never change, starting with the fact that we are human beings. And human beings will always need to unplug and slow down.