When evolution was purely biological, there were no reins to direct it, for evolution followed the course of nature. With homo sapiens, however, another form of evolution emerged that is exponentially faster—cultural evolution—which we can direct to some degree through deliberate choices. We haven’t taken the reins yet, however, and seldom even recognize that the reins exist, but we must if we wish to survive.
In the early days of our species, when our brains initially evolved the means to think abstractly, resulting in language and the invention of tools, we were not aware of our opportunity to direct our evolution. We are no longer naïve, or certainly shouldn’t be. We recognize and celebrate the power of our technologies, but seldom take responsibility for the effects of that power. Cultural evolution has placed within our reach not only the means of progress but also the means of regress. The potential consequences of our technologies have grown. Though we can choose to ignore these consequences and often work hard to do so, they’re now right up in our faces, screaming for attention.
Some of our technologies, beginning with the industrial revolution and continuing until now, contained seeds of destruction. Technologies that rely on fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming, are a prominent example. We can work to undo their harm either by (1) abstaining from their use, (2) developing new technologies to counter their effects, or (3) developing alternative technologies to replace them. When we create technologies, we should first consider their effects and proceed responsibly. We’re not doing this with information technologies. Instead, we embrace them without question, naively assuming that they are good, or at worst benign. Most information technologies provide potential benefits, but also potential harms.
Technologies that support data sensemaking and communication should be designed and used with care. We should automate only those activities that a computer can perform well and humans cannot. Effective data sensemaking relies on reflective, rational thought, resulting in understanding moderated by ethics. Computers can manipulate data in various ways but they cannot understand data and they have no concept of ethics. Computers should only assist in the data sensemaking process by augmenting our abilities without diminishing them.
You might think that I’m fighting to defend and preserve the dignity and value of humanity against the threat of potentially superior technologies. I care deeply about human dignity and the value of human lives, but these aren’t my primary motives. If we could produce a better world for our own and other species by granting information technologies free rein, I would heartily embrace the effort, but we can’t. By shifting more data sensemaking work to information technologies, as we are currently doing, we are inviting inferior results and a decline in human abilities.
Despite our many flaws, as living, sentient creatures we humans are able to make sense of the world and attempt to act in its best interests in ways that our information technologies cannot. We don’t always do this, but we can. Computers can be programmed to identify some of the analytical findings that we once believed only humans could discover, but they cannot perform these tasks as we do, with awareness, understanding, and care. Their algorithms lack the richness of our perceptions, thoughts, values, and feelings. We dare not entrust independent decisions about our lives and the world to computer algorithms.
We must understand our strengths and limitations and resist the temptation to create and rely on technologies to do what we can do better. We should not sit idly by as those who benefit from promoting information technologies without forethought do so simply because it is in their interests as the creators and owners of those technologies. No matter how well-intentioned technology companies and their leaders believe themselves to be, their judgments are deeply biased.
Technologies—especially information technologies—change who we are and how we relate to one another and the world. We are capable of thinking deeply about data when we develop the requisite skills, but we lose this capability when we allow computers to remove us from the loop of data sensemaking. The less we engage in deep thinking, the less we’re able to do it. So, we’re facing more than the problem that computers cannot fully reproduce the results of our brains; we’re also facing the forfeiture of these abilities if we cease to use them. By sacrificing these abilities, we would lose much that makes us human. We would devolve.
At any point in history, one question is always fundamental: “What are we going to do now?” We can’t change the past, but we must take the reins of the future. Among a host of useful actions, we must resist anyone who claims that their data sensemaking tools will do our thinking for us. They have their own interests in mind, not ours. Resistance isn’t futile; at least not yet.