Friday, July 3, 2015

The Sofalarity

[ed. See also: The problem with easy technology.]

Imagine that two people are carving a six-foot slab of wood at the same time. One is using a hand-chisel, the other, a chainsaw. If you are interested in the future of that slab, whom would you watch?

This chainsaw/chisel logic has led some to suggest that technological evolution is more important to humanity’s near future than biological evolution; nowadays, it is not the biological chisel but the technological chainsaw that is most quickly redefining what it means to be human. The devices we use change the way we live much faster than any contest among genes. We’re the block of wood, even if, as I wrote in January, sometimes we don’t even fully notice that we’re changing.

Assuming that we really are evolving as we wear or inhabit more technological prosthetics—like ever-smarter phones, helpful glasses, and brainy cars—here’s the big question: Will that type of evolution take us in desirable directions, as we usually assume biological evolution does?

Some, like the Wired founder Kevin Kelly, believe that the answer is a resounding “yes.” In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.” (...)

Biological evolution is driven by survival of the fittest, as adaptive traits are those that make the survival and reproduction of a population more likely. It isn’t perfect, but at least, in a rough way, it favors organisms who are adapted to their environments.

Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. As a species, we often aren’t much different from the Oji-Cree. Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.

Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility. If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.

by Tim Wu, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Hannah K. Lee