The Emergence Of Artificial Intelligence Is Just The Latest Development In The Menacing Partnership Between Technology And Human Affairs.
By Thomas J. Roach
Over the last 100 years, while technology dramatically changed how we live and work, it quietly changed who we are.
We think of technology in terms of physical objects like computers, electric automobiles or smartphones, but the technology revolution also has a behavioral dimension. Technology requires precise knowledge and skills, and users of technology must learn new vocabulary and new routines. When we adapt to the physical profile of technology, we also are adapting to the philosophical, psychological worldview that produces it.
New technologies save time, give us access to more information, and entertain us. We might be grateful that instruments of progress dominate our physical world, but what does it mean if technology also dominates the way we think and act?
While technical knowledge used to be the domain of craftsmen and scientists, today the challenge of learning technical skills and interacting in technology-driven business systems is universal and ongoing.
No matter where we work, technology impacts our way of thinking about problems, our social interactions with coworkers, and even our self-awareness. Laborers operating excavators, packaging machines, and centrifuges, and office workers using inventory software, order tracking, or even operating copy machines, all must adapt to an expanding technical environment.
World vs. World
To appreciate the subversive nature of technology, we need to consider the difference between the world outside and the world within. For most of us, the physical world around us isn’t composed of trees, meadows, and winding streams; we are surrounded by roads, buildings, and transportation vehicles, and by computer screens displaying word and data possessing software, all produced and maintained by principles of supply and demand, time management, and profit and loss. In the interior world we experience pain and pleasure, hope and despair, love and hate; we follow social norms, embrace personal relationships, and explore consciousness itself.
One might hope that the inner world would be master of the outer world, that our values and sense of identity would influence and constrain our interactions in the impersonal, technically oriented outer environment.
However, in many ways the outer world is reorienting the inner world, and our professional interests in efficiency and control override our concern for personal wellbeing and our desire to exhibit good will.
Technical thinking is characterized by the universal language of logic, by calculation and by our ability to integrate ourselves into prescribed social structures. In the technical world of computers and assembly lines, reason and purpose are operationalized as cause and effect, cost and benefit and ends justified by means.
Interestingly, the root word in technology, techne, originally referenced communication not objects. Technê in ancient Greece referred to speaking using a systematic code of rules and procedures. In the same context, the Oxford English Dictionary said the earliest printed use in English in 1617 references being conversant in a particular art or subject. Ironically, in contemporary English, we use the term technology in reference to objects and systems and pay little attention to the impact the technology has on how we think and communicate.
To best understand the trajectory and historical impact of techne, we need to consider two parallel developments: One, we have come full circle – technical thinking and communication have produced a physical technical environment which is now generating its own technical discourse in the form of artificial intelligence.
And two, the words and sentences produced by our latest artificial intelligence technology can mask themselves as human communication because human communication has already adopted the form and habits of technical communication.
Currently we are concerned with the clumsy grammar and political messaging of artificial intelligence, but perhaps the real reason we should feel threatened is that we have begun to think and act like computers ourselves.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].