The Being Human Conference, which took place at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts this weekend, was designed to explore the science of human experience. The speakers ranged from neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists, to monks, poets and filmmakers – and together their collective ideas and insights shined a light on the complexities of what it means to be human in 2012.
There appears to be two main ideologies surrounding the nature of mankind in 2012 and they are shaped through a Guassian distribution. On the left side of the curve you have the people that believe technology is a force of constant stress, noise, and chaos. They argue that technology is distracting us from the here and now, taking us away from our natural roots and forging a world that embraces superfluous consumption. You can find this crowd meditating, outside in nature, or at your local granola shop talking about the virtues of drinking tea over coffee. These conventionalists, as I will call them, tend to be pessimistic about the future of our technologically-infused world and wish to revert back to a time where our lives were simpler.
On the right side of our distribution sit the technophiles, people who are always attached to their iPhone or Android, following the latest news on Mashable, TechCrunch, and updating their Twitter stream like it’s a game of hot potato. These people are very familiar with the concept of the Singularity, and if they are far enough to the right of the bell curve they may even have 2045 marked on their calendar as the inevitable merger of mankind with technology. Some of these folks refer to themselves as futurists, but all of them are without any hesitation highly optimistic about where our world is headed.
Being someone who finds himself in between both of these extremes, I wish to briefly explain why both perspectives are essential for mankind’s prosperity and show how techniques can be extracted from each party to forge a robust schema for future flourishing.
First and foremost, negativity about the state of our world and pessimism about our future is the totally wrong mindset to take. While there are still issues to be resolved surrounding energy, poverty, water and more – we are living in the greatest time our planet has ever known. For concrete evidence of this, check out Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Peter Diamandis’ Abundance. Instead of vying for optimism over pessimism, I think we need to embrace an entirely new paradigm that I refer to as pragmatic idealism; the notion that we can accomplish anything with hard work and collaboration. We just need to be smart about the process and progress will ensue.
It is within the spectrum of the “process” that the conventionalists have some ideas that must remain with us even as things continue to progress exponentially. Unplugging and slowing ourselves down is essential for registering all of the information and noise that is thrown at us through always being connected. In his latest book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer breaks down the steps for innovation and the science behind creativity. The literature on this field is growing in quality and quantity, but some of the findings suggest that getting away from the noise to meditate or going for a walk outside can induce creative sparks that will ultimately fuel the innovation capable of tackling our world’s woes.
While the conventionalist’s idea of nature has some timeless ideas that will be with us forever, it is important to remember that technology is inherently a human phenomenon. In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly goes as far to say that, in fact, “humans are the reproductive organs of technology.” Whether technology owns us or we own it, the relationship is inherently symbiotic. Individuals living today are more empowered than ever. With an internet connection, anyone from all around the planet has the entire world’s database of knowledge and collective history. We can learn skills, discover new ideas and find people with similar interests. As a result, IQ is higher than it’s ever been and continues to increase universally. In his book What is Intelligence James Flynn notes that we are now “Thinking in more sophisticated ways” and Steven Pinker agrees that “we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment.” In referring to this newfound capacity of our species, The Whole Earth Catalog – what Steve Jobs referred to as the “Bible” of his generation – famously states: “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Technology provides the means for us – as individuals and a species – to progress, produce, and promote infinite levels of wellbeing and prosperity.
Ultimately, being human in 2012 means having an awareness of the long view, while still maintaining a level of clarity and connectedness to the present. Technology enables us to cultivate our passions and find our niche in the world. At the same time it sparks collaboration and creates teams dynamically comprised of hyper-specialized experts working across disciplines to help solve problems. We are living in a modern day renaissance, where people of all different backgrounds and interests are finding ways to work with each other to create a sum that is greater than its parts. The conference was a refreshing reminder that as we continue to evolve as a species, conversation and bonding with others is still the bastion of being human in 2012.