Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick. His next book, Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past Present and Future is out with Palgrave Macmillan in September 2011.
You can tell a lot about the sort of creature we think we are, by the value we place on the things we make. In October 2010, the Economist staged an on-line debate on the most important technological innovation of the 20th century. The challengers: the digital computer and the artificial fertiliser. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the computer won by a margin of 3-to-1. Why was this result not surprising? After all, the artificial fertiliser is arguably the invention most responsible for a fourfold growth in the world’s population over the past century, as well as cutting the proportion of suffering from malnutrition by at least two-thirds. It would be difficult to think of another product of human ingenuity that has had such deep and lasting benefits for so many people. Even if it is true, that in absolute terms there are more people living in poverty now than the entire population of the earth in 1900, the success of artificial fertilisers has kept alive the dream that all poverty is ultimately eradicable.
Yet, the computer won – even though its development has tracked and in some cases amplified, global class divisions. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly common to speak of ‘knows’ and ‘know-nots,’ in the way one spoke of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ fifty years ago. Nevertheless, over the ten days of debate it became clear that the computer was bound to win because, for better or worse, we identify more strongly with the extension than the conservation of human potential. Underlying this distinction is a fundamental ambivalence that human beings have always had towards the bodies of their birth. The fact that, when compared with other animals, we take such a long time to reach adulthood has led philosophers through the ages to muse that we are by nature premature beings who need to go beyond ourselves to complete our existence.
Whether we call this prosthetic extension ‘culture’, ‘technology’ or, in Richard Dawkins’ case, the ‘extended phenotype’, it suggests that we are not fully human until, or unless our biological bodies are somehow enhanced. The computer captures that desire in a twofold sense: it both provides a model for how to think of ourselves in such an enhanced state and the environment in which to realize it. A new book by the media theorist David Berry, The Philosophy of Software, explores the implications of this development in terms of such computer-based technologies as iPhones and iPads that increasingly constitute the human life-world. Bluntly put, the more time people spend interacting with high-tech gadgets, the more grounds there are for claiming that what the previous generation called ‘virtual reality’ is becoming the actual reality in which people define themselves.
Seen in this light, it is not surprising that an invention that ‘merely’ keeps alive our normal biological bodies – such as the artificial fertiliser – should be ranked decidedly lower than the computer in terms of importance. Back in the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling argued that you can tell the value that people place on their own lives by the amount they are willing to pay for securing it. Whether the relevant sense of ‘security’ is defined in terms of healthcare, life insurance, development aid or military budgets, one would be left with an open verdict on just how much people value the indefinite maintenance of the bodies of their birth. If we identify people’s preferences with what they do rather than what they say, it would seem that beyond a certain point, people would prefer to forgo security in favour of the freedom (and risk) to explore alternative possible modes of existence – for which the computer, again for better or worse, provides the technological exemplar.