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Why 'upgrading' humanity is a transhumanist myth

Upload your mind? Here's a reality check on the Singularity.

Douglas Rushkoff: I think we still know so little about what it means to be human that the confidence with which we think we can upload ourselves to silicon or recreate ourselves with algorithms is shocking to me. The only ones out there who think they know what human consciousness is are computer engineers. If you talk to actual brain researchers and neuroscientists, they say, we're nowhere close. We don't even know for sure what goes on in a single square centimeter of soil. We're still trying to teach agriculture companies that the soil is alive, that it's not just dirt that you can put chemicals on. It's a living matrix. If we don't even know what a single centimeter of soil is, how do we know what the human brain is? We don't. We don't know what the source of consciousness is. We don't know where we come from. We don't even know if there's a meaning to this universe or not. Yet, we think that we can make a simulation that's as valid as this? Every simulation we make misses something. Think about the difference between being in a jazz club and listening to a great CD. There's a difference, you know. And some of those differences, we understand, and some of them, we don't.

So when I see people rushing off to upload consciousness to a chip, it feels more like escape from humanity than it is a journey forward. And I get it. Life is scary. I mean, women, real-life women, are scary. You know, the people are scary. The moisture is scary. Death is scary. Babies are scary. Other people who don't speak the same language or have the same customs, they're scary. All sorts of stuff is scary. And I understand the idea of this kind of having a Sim City perfected simulation that I can go into and not have to worry about all that stuff I don't know, where everything is discrete, everything is a yes/no, this/that, all the choices have been made. There's a certain attractiveness to that, but that's dead. It's not alive. There's no wonder. There's no awe. There's nothing strange and liminal and ambiguous about it.


I was on a panel with a famous transhumanist, and he was arguing that it's time that human beings come to accept that we will have to pass the torch of evolution to our digital successors. And that once computers have the singularity and they're really thinking and better than us, then we should really only stick around as long as the computers need us, you know, to keep the lights on and oil their little circuits or whatever we have to do. And then, after that, fade into oblivion. And I said, hey, no, wait a minute. Human beings are still special. We're weird. We're quirky. We've got David Lynch movies and weird yoga positions and stuff we don't understand, and we're ambiguous and weird and quirky. You know, we deserve a place in the digital future. And he said, oh, Rushkoff, you're just saying that because you're human. As if it's hubris, right? Oh, I'm just defending my little team. And that's where I got the idea, all right, fine, I'm a human. I'm on Team Human. And it's not Team Human against the algorithms or against anything other than those who want to get rid of the humans. I think humans deserve a place.

Certainly, until we understand what it is we are, we shouldn't get rid of us. And as far as I'm concerned, we're cool. We're still weird and funny and wonderful. And yeah, we destroyed the environment. We did really nasty things. But I would argue we do those things when we're less than human. We do those things when we can dehumanize others. You can't have slaves if you're thinking of those as people. You can only have slaves if you're thinking of them as something other than people. And this desire to transcend the human, I feel like it's excusing a whole lot of behaviors. It's excusing a whole lot of dehumanization. It makes it easier to send kids into caves to get rare earth metals for your phone. It makes it easier to create toxic waste everywhere. It makes it easier for you to think of the human timeline as having a beginning, middle, and an end, because we're going to transcend it. And that's a sick Western, neoliberal, growth-based, apocalyptic myth that could very well end our species. But really, I would say to the detriment of our little universe.

  • Though computer engineers claim to know what human consciousness is, many neuroscientists say that we're nowhere close to understanding what it is, or its source.
  • Scientists are currently trying to upload human minds to silicon chips, or re-create consciousness with algorithms, but this may be hubristic because we still know so little about what it means to be human.
  • Is transhumanism a journey forward or an escape from reality?


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Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.

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Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?

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Why ‘Christian nationalists’ are less likely to wear masks and social distance

In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Coronavirus
  • A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
  • The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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