the empress is under-dressed

Review by Doug Cocks of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing The Way We Think And Feel  by S Greenfield, Allen Lane, London 2003.  Published in Dissent Magazine Autumn 2004


This is a book about how new technologies emerging in the 21st century ‘might change our thoughts, feelings and personalities’.  It is written by Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and ‘a distinguished neuroscientist, broadcaster, writer and best-selling author of The Private Life of the Brain and The Human Brain: A Guided Tour

Each of the book’s ten chapters poses and then discusses a question, starting with The Future: What is the Problem?   The problem is not that science could change ‘everyday life’.  It is not that new technologies have ‘ colossal potential for good and evil’.  The problem with the future is that emerging technologies ‘could all conspire together to ‘challenge how we think, what kind of individuals we are, and even whether each of us stays an individual at all.’

Chapter 2 asks What will we see as reailiy?  ‘…the human mind could be on the brink of a makeover even more cataclysmic than that which separates the attitudes of (these) earlier generations from our own new-millennium view.’  We may well ‘spend far more time at home…changes in the way we use space …might sound like science fiction now but could have clear practical advantages in an overcrowded or ecologically compromised planet.’  The chapter moves through home technologies to clothing technologies to having ‘cyber-friends’.  The minutiae of everyday life will be available as an electronic story line of the individual’s life.  Plausibly, we would ‘no longer have private thoughts, rather we would effectively be part of a larger network, a mere node in a thinking, conscious system that goes way beyond an individual mind.’  Blurring of the interface between artificial systems and humans will be a recurrent reason why our descendants will see reality in a very different way.

Chapter 3, on robots, asks How will we think of our bodies?  The lives of future generations will involve more interactions with computers and fewer with people.  In particular, robots will become more capable and, perhaps even conscious.  Conversely, prostheses for expanding and improving bodily capabilities will become more effective (eg better artificial eyes) and more diverse, eg brain implants for stimulating consciousness or the emotions.  There will be a blurring of the distinction between body and non-body. The chapter segues into a discussion of contemporary research into how the brain works and possibilities for manipulating such workings, even as far as the artificial brain. Overall, an increasing fraction of the information people process will come from computers.

Chapter 4, on work, asks What will we do with our time?    It begins with a long discussion on prospects for computing power and the energy sources that will serve tomorrow’s high-speed computers.  The chapter is largely concerned with how this information technology revolution will change people’s working lives. Workforces and company sizes will shrink.  Many will work from home. Work for many could be very much routine and boring.  In compensation there will be much more leisure, which we may or may not know how to use.  As with earlier chapters, the overall message is that traditional boundaries in our lives will be breaking down.   Adapting to constant change will make it harder to build a smoothly evolving persona and life story. Who am I?

Chapter 5, on reproduction, asks How will we view life? It starts by quoting Francis Fukuyama’s warning that biotechnology might alter human nature and move us into a ‘posthuman’ epoch.  The chapter reviews what is known about genes and diseases, genes and phenotypic traits.  There is a straying towards but not a plunge into the pit of sociobiology; rather a ‘subtle dialogue between nurture and nature’.  Prospects for various reproductive technologies (eg non-human surrogate mothers) and gene therapies (eg genetic enhancement) are discussed.  Cloning will be possible and acceptable within ‘the next few decades’. A blurring of parenthood, generations and gender and a narrowing of the species’ genetic variability becomes possible.

Chapter 6, on education, asks What will we need to learn?  It first reviews physical and functional brain development., particularly the plasticity of this process according to environment. The possibility of using such knowledge to manipulate learning is raised.---helped by toys that learn perhaps.  Literacy and abstract thought will be less important in a culture of screen-based experience.  Learning to adapt to accelerating technological change will be critical. Required skills will usually be IT related.  Homogenised individuals being socialised in diverse family structures is another scenario.  Overall, education will begin blurring with everyday life..

Chapter 7 is about science---What questions will we ask?  Computers, nano-science and genetics are identified as the pivotal sciences which will drive the technological advances this book sees as determining how tomorrow’s people will think and feel.  Over coming decades, disciplinary boundaries will blur, synthesis will jostle reductionism.  Then comes a discursive list of fairly conventional ‘big questions’, from space-time cosmology to quantal and nano (molecule by molecule) processes.  Human science will focus on the body’s three ‘control’ systems---hormones, emotions and the central nervous system.  Consciousness, not unexpectedly, gets a solid workout.

Chapter 8 uses terrorism as an entry point for the question Shall we still have free will?  ‘Yet surely the march of technology will eventually work against the narrowing of the mind that defines the heart-and-soul fanatic’ (!!).  Military and terrorist technologies (biological, chemical, informational etc) are reviewed.  The psychology and purpose of terrorism are outlined.  Indeed, terrorism is viewed primarily as a psychological malfunction.  The scary importance of our need to belong is stressed..  The behaviouristic challenge is to learn how to make terrorists happy.  Finally, in a terrorised world, the boundaries between war and peace will blur.

Now we are coming up the straight.  Chapter 9 asks of human nature, How robust will it be? and Chapter 10 asks What are the options for managing a degraded, overpopulated, poverty-ridden world?  Professor Greenfield is accepting of EO Wilson’s definition of human nature as ‘those deeply embedded laws of behaviour that shape society, technology and culture’.  Nonetheless, she goes on to argue for

‘…human nature (as)…a generalised umbrella term for behaviours that depend on status and social values.  The cultures and values may vary, but the behaviours do not.  The really important distinction to grasp is that diverse cultures and values determine when and how the behaviours manifest themselves, but the behaviours themselves are recognisable as uniform, above and beyond the particular context in which they occur’.

If behaviour (observable activity) is context-dependent, what are the context-independent determinants of that behaviour, the foundations of human nature?  Beyond genes, emotions, drives and Wilsonian ‘traits and tendencies’, it is suggested that the ‘concept of the self’ is ‘central to human nature’.  It is implied that, within hir own social context, each individual is working to create a significant self.  And it is that project which Professor Greenfield sees as being threatened by those emerging technologies which ‘drug’ the brain into pre-consciousness as they meet our every need or which stimulate the brain so frenetically that persisting elements of a significant self have no time to develop. 

.  ‘…the new technologies might jeopardise the very existence of human nature, permanently’.

 Or, just to muddy the waters, an alternative scenario is suggested.  We might be so interconnected in a Web-like technological ‘noosphere’ that a collective identity, a crowd mentality, emerges and constrains the expression of individual identities.  The danger suggested here is the growth of fanaticism and fundamentalism and a world of ‘large-scale death and suffering’.

Chapter 10 explores options for the future, or, more accurately, explores possible global-scale futures.  It starts by recognising that the ‘vast majority’ of people in our degraded crowded world will not have to worry about technological challenges to their ‘human nature’.  Fanaticism and fundamentalism stand to flourish in the world’s great urban slums, without a smidgin of help from any noosphere.  Not to worry though, ‘…the ecological, political, financial and sociological implications of a multicultural, enriched world on the one hand and an ever poorer world that has been deserted by the young and able on the other are outside the scope of our discussions here’ (Apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?).  While it is likely that the first and third worlds will continue to move further apart, there are many ways in which our powerful new technologies could be harnessed ‘to bring the material quality of life in the developing world to a level commensurate with that in first-world countries’, eg electronic news kiosks.  The book ends with a plea to protect ‘the most precious thing we each have’, our private egos, that part of the mind which is most conscious of self.

Enough of striving to be fair.  This is a poorly-argued and poorly-constructed book.  On the latter, the book is a ramble (yes) through a landscape with no signposts.  Despite the fact that every chapter has multiple themes, often connected by little more than free association, there are no chapter sub-headings.  

The book’s core message is that, if widely applied, this century’s emerging technologies might produce a world where people think, feel and spend their time differently.  But has it not ever been so?  Certainly for sociology’s cultural materialists, changes in technology first change the economic system of production and then people adapt or are adapted to the new system. 

As Eric Fromm puts it in Fear of Freedom, all societies socialise people so they want to do what must be done to keep society functioning.  Thus, a society’s social character ( a more useful concept here than human nature) is those motivators/drivers of actions and feelings which are common to most of its members. Social character is shaped primarily by the system of production and the sort of work available simply because this is what the individual has to accept and adapt to in order to live.  This is also why certain definite changes in social character take place at certain historical epochs. For example, Protestant doctrines prepared people to accept the roles they were required to play under industrialism.  Or, another example, after the renaissance economic activity became respectable whereas in medieval times salvation was the primary concern.  Putting it this way, the modern individual emerged from the destruction of the medieval social structure.  And the process continues.  The success of industrial capitalism requires consumption and, presto, a social character with accumulation as its central concern has emerged (with, as Postman, Chomsky and others contend, a little help from the advertising industry).

As the capitalist world enters a new ‘long wave’ of economic activity based on the technologies Professor Greenfield identifies, it would be surprising if social character in the core economies did not respond.  But, and this is the author’s $64 question, will it be fundamentally different this time?  Will people lose their capacity to reproduce society?  Stupefied by somatic comforts and brainwashed by an overload of virtual experience, will westerners lose the sense of self and the drive for self-realisation which ultimately powers the reproduction and evolution of social organisation?

This is where the book falls down.  So much space is devoted to an eye-glazing multitude of ‘Jesus, fancy that’ technological possibilities (make that an A for homework) that not much is left for exploring why the next change in social character could be disastrously dysfunctional.  Or, if not societally dysfunctional, just plain unappealing.  Instead of plausible arguments as to why particular types of technologies produce particular types of mental adaptations, grounded in an historical framework which the author probably lacks, it is rhetorically asserted that human nature may be insufficiently robust to survive what is in store for it.  The suggestion is that the rate of change could exceed the capacity to adapt.

And she could be right.  Much have I read about the inadequacies of the human mind for coping with its own products---from the problems of the ‘big brain’ as an evolutionary experiment through Spengler’s The Decline of the West to Toffler’s Future Shock. For all sorts of reasons, one of which is brains that are not up to the task, it would not surprise me if the species hits the wall.

But not under the Greenfield scenario.  If five per cent of the world’s population choose to become gormless lotus-eaters and their societies crumble within the century, Greenfield’s ‘vast majority’ will inherit the earth and the next opportunity to do better.