Technology: singularity versus sofalarity, where are we heading?

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Tim Wu writes,

“Biological evolution is driven by survival of the fittest, as adaptive traits are those that make the survival and reproduction of a population more likely. It isn’t perfect, but at least, in a rough way, it favors organisms who are adapted to their environments.

Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. As a species, we often aren’t much different from the Oji-Cree. Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.

Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility. If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.

The sofalarity (pictured memorably in the film “Wall-E”) is not inevitable either. But the prospect of it makes clear that, as a species, we need mechanisms to keep humanity on track. The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests. It has both the opportunity and the means to reach for something higher. And, as consumers, we should remember that our collective demands drive our destiny as a species, and define the posthuman condition.”

This is a remarkable observation; the case study of the people who were isolated from technology and used to “hard life” pretty much till the twenties and then they started leap-frogging into advanced tools is a case in point how too-soon, too-fast technology that adapts to you rather than the change that you adapt to can lead to adverse health and social situations. The challenge for us is to understand our deeper selves and adapt to the changing technology rather than letting technology define our identities. As I read the piece, I was thinking of Marie Kondo and the minimalist movements as well as the mindfulness approaches we have learned over the years.

Bottomline: I believe we can allow ourselves to splurge if we know how to adapt.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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