Are you a human? Select all that apply.

Digital technology has transformed human nature to the point that we are becoming “different kinds of creatures,” further from Aristotle’s ideal of the good life, said philosopher Antón Barba-Kay in a talk last week as part of the Department of Government’s Vik-Bailey Lecture Series.

Barba-Kay, the Robert B. Aird Chair of Humanities at Deep Springs College, has written about the dehumanizing effects of technology in his book “A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation.” Although he acknowledges the benefits brought by the digital revolution, he bemoans its negative effects on human well-being so much he would like to go back in time before the arrival of the internet.

“If it were in my power to go back in time to prevent or delay the invention of the internet, I would do so even if it meant being forever condemned to ask strangers for driving directions.”

Antón Barba-Kay

“I think a new kind of human being is taking shape, under the presumption that what most counts about us can be quantified and codified, but that presumption, while it eliminates many forms of friction and oppression, is also progressively devastating the deepest forms of human communion,” Barba-Kay said. “If it were in my power to go back in time to prevent or delay the invention of the internet, I would do so even if it meant being forever condemned to ask strangers for driving directions.”

The effects of digital technology on creativity, privacy, community, and well-being in general are self-evident, said Barba-Kay, and they’re growing by the day as people depend more and more on smartphones and electronic tools, social media, and the internet. According to U.S. Census data from 2018, smartphones were present in 84 percent of American households and 78 percent of households owned a desktop or laptop.

In 2011, the United Nations declared internet access a basic human right. Thirteen years later, it makes sense to ponder whether the internet is at odds with human flourishing, the pursuit of the highest aims of a human being, and the building of an ideal society, or utopia, Barba-Kay said in his talk, “Digital Technology and the End of Human Nature.”

“Is the internet part of the good life in the way that shelter, clothing, and music are? Is a smartphone? Is social media?” said Barba-Kay. “If you were asked to envision utopia, will Gmail, Tinder and Hulu have a place in it? But if you could make the choice never to use digital technology again, would you do so? The question of the transformation of our values and standards beyond our power to recognize them becomes all the more perplexing and urgent when we raise questions about human nature itself.”

The impact of digital technologies on human nature differs from that of other new technologies (i.e., the automobile, radio, television) in that it is making humans feel alienated from their tools, said Barba-Kay. Except for software engineers and coders, most people don’t know how digital technologies work. “At the utmost verge of the Enlightenment we thereby find ourselves at the beginning of a new Dark Age in which our material circumstances will become more and more opaque to us,” he said.

As digital technologies develop, humans are challenged to prove their humanity not only to themselves but also to the same digital technologies developed by humans. Barba-Kay pointed to the use of CAPTCHA, (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), a test to determine whether the user is a human to deter bots and spam. For Barba-Kay, CAPTCHAs call on humans to perform acts of humanity online, but it has become a parable of how human nature is being threatened by advances in digital technology.

“The test initially involved a transcription of squiggly letters into a box, if you’re old enough to remember,” he said. “But as the bots got better, the letters had to get squigglier. In a 2014 study, Google discovered that AI was already able to solve 99.8 percent of the puzzles; meanwhile, the letters had gotten so squiggly that only 33 percent of humans could solve them.

“The point of CAPTCHA is to test for universal humanity in a manner that is rote, unambiguous, and in no way context-dependent,” Barba-Kay said. “Yet tasks that are rote, unambiguous, and in no way context-dependent are precisely the sort of thing that automation does best. Which is why each time we succeed in establishing that we are human through CAPTCHA we take one more step toward obsolescence.”

Barba-Kay worries that rapid developments in digital technology are affecting key aspects of the human experience: their sense of community, time, and reality, and more broadly what it means to be human and what the purpose of life should be.

In a discussion following the talk, audience members peppered the speaker with questions. Daniel Carpenter, Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and chair of the Government Department, asked whether there were similar cries over the end of human nature with the invention of the automobile, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and other technological breakthroughs. For Barba-Kay, the effects of the digital revolution are qualitatively different. “It’s transformative to have something that doesn’t take any time to go from A to B in the way that the railroad did,” he said.

Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, who was moderating, dropped a question to Barba-Kay at the end of the event.

“I received a paper from a student that I thought was pretty good,” said Sandel. “I called the student in and asked the student about it. The student denied that it was written by ChatGPT, and I wondered after we spoke, which should worry me more: whether he had cheated and lied about it, or whether he had come to write like ChatGPT. What do you think?

With a response that summed up his views on the effects of digital technology on human nature, Barba-Kay said, “The latter.”

For first-year Yona Sperling-Milner, the talk helped her think more critically about the role that electronic devices play in people’s lives; not only as time-suckers, but mostly as an activity that could be detrimental to her purpose in life.

“I thought that everything the speaker was saying rang very true to my experience with technology, especially as a young person,” said Sperling-Milner. “It made me think that the negative association with cellphones might not only just be, ‘Oh, this feels like a waste of time,’ but somewhat deeper in the sense that it might impact me and my striving for what he was calling the good life.”

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