Hillsdale professors combined their technical knowledge and cultural aptitude to address the topic of the Lyceum Friday Forum on March 16, about technology and human identity.
Asking a room full of parents and students if they’ve experienced such social media phenomenons as phantom vibration syndrome or fear of missing out, Associate Professor of Physics Paul Hosmer delivered the first of three short lectures, followed by Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Address Ethan Stoneman, and Assistant Professor of Theology Jordan Wales.
With the question, “In what ways does modern technology rewire or implicity educate its users?” Hosmer attempted to give audience members a top 10 list of the outcomes of the implicit education through technology, but stopped at number seven because, demonstrating that technology use amounts to a bad attention span, “that’s as far as he could get.”
Moving from technology’s implicit education of society, Hosmer traced the influence of technology in scientific discoveries. From Galileo’s telescope to the famous meeting between Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble — when Einstein saw a visual confirmation of his theory of general relativity by looking through Hubble’s telescope — Hosmer said modern technology continues to transform the way in which we see the world, and consequently, how we think about it.
Stoneman focused his brief lecture on how modern technology changes communication and public discourse.
“Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram — each is in the business of circulating meaningful signs,” Stoneman said. “By their very definition, signs are abstract — one level removed. In digital media, the separation becomes so great that something radically different and new is created.”
This radical separation gives rise to the simulacrum or the hyperreal. The greatest example of the hyperreal, Stoneman said, is the clone, which no longer merely represents reality, but creates as a representation of reality.
Speaking to its effects on his field of rhetoric, Stoneman said modern technology destroys the situatedness of the rhetorical address, and consequently, we now are seeing the emergence of one overarching medium.
“In the past, rhetoric was inseparable from concrete relations — the funeral oration or the wedding toast — but now we have a constant cycle,” Stoneman said. “The snaps, tweets, and perpetual newsfeed: This is procedural rhetoric whose only purpose is unending interaction with signs and sign value. Everything is geared toward getting to constantly communicate and toward overexposure.”
Even the creators of these social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are realizing the detriment of this overexposure to the human person, Stoneman said.
Concerned parents in Silicon Valley, employees of tech giants like Google, eBay, and Facebook, are sending their children to ‘screenless’ schools where iPhones and other electronic devices are banned, he said.
According to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, “Progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.”
Wales quoted Heinlein and closed the forum by discussing the dangers of artificial intelligence for authentic human interactions — dangers which outweigh their promise to relieve the human condition.
“I believe robotic agents that are indistinguishable from human beings will arrive in my child’s lifetime,” Wales said.
These robotic agents will imitate human gestures and conversations through the operation of artificial neural networks, Wales said, which is a computer system that simulates the brain’s neural processing.
Wales worries that interactions with the robot will lead to a behaviorist account of the human person by giving us a false sense of intentionality.
Because its appearance and facial expressions are indistinguishable from those of humans, the robot will “train us to become consumers of others,” Wales said.
“A robot will never expand our view of how a human person might be,” Wales said. “They don’t make us think beyond self-selected heights or require a heroic gift of self.”
Wales’ concerns were especially impactful for Lyceum officer Sammy Roberts.
“Hearing someone that I respect, like Dr. Wales, predict the invention of androids that can almost perfectly mirror a conversation within his children’s lifetime was really astounding and scary,” Roberts said. “But it was also reassuring to hear that no matter how specialized AI becomes, it can’t capture what is quintessentially human to us. There will always be a kind of hollowness.”