We tend to regard the past as a simpler time, primitive and uncomplicated. While that can be a naive perspective, it is easy to look at how far we’ve come in a few decades, generations, even centuries, and marvel at the progress on multiple levels. But human evolution over that same period is minimal if not non-existent. We are, at some essential, biological or core level, practically the same people we would have been 50 years or 200 years ago.
Technological advances – the spread of human learning, ingenuity, and development – have radically shifted our experience and understanding of our world, and continue to do so. We see our planet as an island in space – globular, revolving in day, seasonal and annual cycles – instead of a flat disk circled by the heavens, and recognize both the impact we can have on it, and the importance of maintaining it as a hospitable environment. We see our own bodies as composed of identifiable, complex and interconnected components that suffer from attacks by tiny organisms invisible to the naked eye, and responsive to lab-generated compounds instead of the applications of leeches, letting of blood, or infusion of elixirs comprised of excrement and weeds. And we’re developing new and better solutions all the time as we continue to learn about ourselves and the world around us.
1. Technology is changing the way we learn.
Once upon a time information was passed along verbally – the only way to learn from others, was to hear and remember. Then we developed writing and language-carrying devices – reeds or feathers or styluses, ink, wax tablets or vellum or paper, with a huge bump in efficiency once mass-production in the form of printing presses came along. While written knowledge was a huge step forward in learning and teaching, representing the ability to access more knowledge than you could remember at any given time, the effort, time and resources required to search out written information incentivized memorization of useful knowledge. With the capacity of the Internet and digital devices to search libraries of information easily and quickly, the most valuable learning skill has shifted from memorization to search skills – and our brains are changing as a result. Less space is given over to storing facts and information that a machine can do (better) – and as a result, more mental capacity is going to things like critical thinking, active learning, and flexible creative problem solving.
2. Technology is changing the way we communicate.
You have more access to other people – friends and strangers – than ever before, through not only telephone, but instant video-calling, and coming soon to a headset near you, virtual reality. Web-based interactions such as social media take the instant worldwide access of direct calling one step further by broadcasting messages and information. While you can know more about a larger pool of people than you could possibly have had access to in the past, this comes with a built-in layer of detachment not found in direct, in-person interactions. The added flexibility and increased access of communication facilitated by technology can be an incredible benefit, or an isolating experience depending on your usage.
3. Technology is changing our relationship to the environment.
We’ve done some harm to the world we live in – coal and natural gas power, forest clear-cutting, overfishing/hunting, and global warming come to mind. But while human development and technology have unquestionably contributed to environmental damage, they also offer incredible opportunities to better understand and positively influence the world around us. The more we understand what has gone on in the past, what is currently occurring and where those trends are headed, the better we can respond with informed solutions. The rise of online learning programs for Environmental Science, Geographic Information Science (GIS) and applied environmental technologies extends the opportunity for committed and proactive individuals to learn more and make a difference from anywhere in the world – for example, you can get your GIS online from USC.
4. Technology is changing our interactions with other organisms.
On the one side, we’re learning from the natural world, with advancements in medicine, communication and consumer-facing technology inspired by animals and plants. On the other, we’re gaining the ability to share our world better with the living creatures around us by understanding their needs and shaping development and technology to take that into account.
5. Technology is changing the way we make and spend money.
Digital virtual assistants and bots. Shared, app-summoned or self-driving cars. Crypto-currency and blockchain. Remote work, the Gig Economy, and the On-Demand or Sharing Economy. Automation has moved far beyond the factory, and it may be making your life better and worse at the same time. The enormous potential for creative and efficient solutions to every conceivable problem are balanced by all the same human issues – namely the abuse and centralization of power and the distribution of wealth. Oh, with the added question of if the robots will decide to take over the earth post-singularity.
Technology continues to impact our understanding of every aspect of the world around us, and increase opportunities to interact with and impact it. With the right choices and commitment to learning and adapting, we have the opportunity to elevate the human experience and the world around us to heights we currently can’t even imagine.