If you’ve followed the miscellaneous crap I write about, you’ll know I’m fascinated with how technology interfaces with the evolutionary motivations baked into our DNA. And this is no different.
One of the earliest observations I had as a kid was the natural tendency we have to see faces in randomness. We see faces in clouds. In the patterns in carpet. In acoustical tile ceilings. It’s part of being human. Because virtually everything that could be a predator has two eyes, a nose and a mouth (there’s a Star Trek Next Generation episode that explains that one). The ability to see the lion’s face in the jungle was an evolutionary advantage passed on to all of us. If you’re ancestors didn’t have this basic skill, you wouldn’t be here. Survival traits passed down. Simple.
And that’s the way it was for the first 45,000 of the 50,000 years of humanity.
But, then civilization of the last few thousand years began to mess this up. The domestication of animals and development of agriculture gave us something to protect from others. We built villages, formed tribes, and eventually kingdoms and countries to protect/defend what we had. Our perception skills had to be honed to recognize people who were different from us, not part of our tribe. Skin color, facial features, and eventually flags became what defined friend or foe.This unleashed one of the most powerful forces (good and bad) in human history, cooperation for the tribe. Monuments have been built, wars fought, etc.
But, now it’s down to what brand of shoes you wear. For us to rally around something for the benefit of humanity, we have to broaden our sense of tribe back to the “human vs predator” level. And despite the hard-wiring, there is no evolutionary advantage anymore to identify simply as “human”. One of the biggest drivers of modern consumer culture is based on division. “Segmentation” of the modern marketing culture has sliced and diced us to ridiculous proportions. Our us vs them DNA is no longer about humans vs predators, but the silliness of jocks vs geeks, red vs blue, christian vs islam, goths vs metal-heads.
However, a new “threat” has appeared and its cognitive abilities are way beyond ours. The new “machine-readable world” is changing things. Computers are reading all the text on the internet and analyzing. They can understand human speech. With IBM’s stunt on Jeopardy, it’s apparent they can interpret some pretty nuanced stuff. And, they can see, recognize people, cars, microbes, etc. They understand our world, but we (the vast majority anyway) don’t understand theirs.
We’ve seen how people react to advanced Japanese robots and the freak out over the all-knowing world of big data. Will the uncanny valley take us to a new level of perception? Will we begin to notice the constantly observing world around us, yet most of us don’t understand? If so, will we see it as an evolutionary threat?
I’m not afraid of technology, I’m what’s considered the “digital elite”. BUT, knowing what I know about big data, location, databases, etc., I’m probably more consciously aware of what’s going on around me. And it does make me uneasy. Will everyone else begin to sense it? If so, could that shared unease be the thing which allows us to see all of humanity as part of one tribe again?