A circuit board. Hillsdale pro­fessors dis­cussed how tech­nology affects humans’ views of each other at a Lyceum forum on Friday. Pexels | Courtesy 

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.”