We have a seemingly infinite ability to innovate and learn. We have modified the world in numerous ways. But now we humans need to innovate again to cope with the effects of the digital revolution as we enter a new phase of history, write Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson.

It's a perennial question for scientists and philosophers alike — what makes humans human? Charles Darwin's idea that we share an evolutionary past with other species led him to ponder what we have in common and what is unique to us.

Some questions we may never answer. For example, do animals have emotions like us? But other differences seem clearer.

We are the only animals to spend large amounts of time making things, destroying them and then making new, seemingly better, things. Our abilities to learn, pass on information and continually to innovate are unmatched and seemingly endless.

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We have modified the world in numerous ways, some good, some bad, so much so that it is widely accepted that our planet has entered a new phase in its history — the Anthropocene.

Our biological evolution took millions of years and involved changes in our genetic make-up related to improving our chances of surviving and reproducing, just as for every species. But our unique innovative skills are part of both our biological evolution which gave us the capacities to do so and our cultural evolution, linked to our social nature and which aimed at making life more comfortable, safer, happier and more fun — at least for some of us.

Our planet has entered a new phase in its history - the Anthropocene. Photo / File
Our planet has entered a new phase in its history - the Anthropocene. Photo / File

Many of our innovations in the last few millennia, and particularly in recent times, have become tools of power and of capturing and exploiting the world's resources, benefiting a few of us rather than our species as a whole.

The trouble with technological innovations is that they usually have disadvantages as well as advantages, and often the former don't become apparent for some time.

Our society and our ingenious inventions are always a bit experimental. We don't have to look very far to find examples.

After World War II, the food industry developed highly processed foods, which soon became widely available and heavily marketed, and which are convenient, cheap and tasty. So much so that we are battling an epidemic of obesity in almost every country, and especially in our Pacific island neighbours.

Earlier in the last century we invented antibiotics, and won a major victory against the bacteria which caused so many premature deaths in the world; that is until these bugs evolved strains that are resistant to the drugs and so may cause infections which we cannot treat.

The Industrial Revolution witnessed the development of ways of generating the energy needed for new ways of mass production. Photo / 123rf
The Industrial Revolution witnessed the development of ways of generating the energy needed for new ways of mass production. Photo / 123rf

Earlier still, the Industrial Revolution witnessed the development of ways of burning fossil fuels to generate the energy needed for new factories, vehicles and domestic heating, and also to change the climate of our planet.

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But isn't this all rather too gloomy? Surely human ingenuity will find solutions to these technological problems, just as we have done before?

We have new drugs to help us lose weight, and surgical techniques to slice the fat off or make our stomachs smaller.

The enormous resources of Big Pharma will be deployed to develop new ways of fighting bacteria and viruses.

Earlier in the last century we invented antibiotics, and won a major victory against the bacteria which caused so many premature deaths in the world. Photo / 123rf
Earlier in the last century we invented antibiotics, and won a major victory against the bacteria which caused so many premature deaths in the world. Photo / 123rf

And we'll maybe invent clever geo-engineering technologies to capture carbon, reduce sea temperatures and so on.

Perhaps we will. But can the future costs of innovations designed to meet these challenges posed by past innovations be met?

As the challenges do not respect national borders, it seems unlikely that the burden of addressing them will be borne by those who develop the technologies alone. This is particularly true as those populations most affected are often in low-income countries, for example coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels or urban slum dwellers facing epidemics and the lifelong costs of diabetes.

In our recent book Ingenious: the unintended consequences of human innovation (Harvard, 2019) we look unblinkingly at this scenario and ask — at what point may the global arms race between the benefits of new and the downsides of older technologies start to be lost?

While as a highly successful species our ingenuity has allowed us to win so far, the type of changes we are seeing in our world, and the speed at which they are occurring, poses a threat on a different scale to any we have met throughout our evolution.

Now we have the ability to print 3D objects with a printing machine. Photo / 123rf
Now we have the ability to print 3D objects with a printing machine. Photo / 123rf

Our research for Ingenious uncovered one class of innovation which has hardly been discussed in these terms, but which seems to us to pose challenges on an unprecedented scale. It is the transformation of our world by digital technology.

This is much more than just the internet or social media. The digital transformation is likely still in its early days as the internet of things, AI and new digital-human interfaces evolve.

They have potential repercussions for every aspect of our lives, whether we think of ourselves as individuals, members of a family or wider society.

Like other innovations, we readily accepted the benefits of the digital transformation of our world in terms of communication, access to information and social connectivity.

Governments were loath to regulate what appeared to be genuinely transformative innovations, driven not by established industries or academia. But, as the transformation has continued, the potential impacts on our wellbeing, not to mention our democratic and our economic systems, are becoming increasingly clear.

The digital transformation is likely still in its early days as the internet of things, AI and new digital-human interfaces evolve. Photo / AP
The digital transformation is likely still in its early days as the internet of things, AI and new digital-human interfaces evolve. Photo / AP

There are now urgent questions about how the digital world in its multiple manifestations may affect the mental and emotional development of children and young people, impinging on their personalities, how they interact with each other, form relationships, and become members of a democratic nation state.

In the past decade the rates of mental health problems in young people in New Zealand have doubled. This rapid rise has likely many interlocking causes, but the multiple roles of the digital transformation are almost certainly a major factor.

In parallel with the effects of the digital transformation on individuals are effects on the nation state. Its power has been eroded in terms of regulation of slanderous, pornographic, self-harm, racist, sexist or homophobic material and the operation of politically extreme groups.

e-currencies threaten the state's ability to sustain its monetary or fiscal policy. And while propaganda and the spreading of disinformation has always been part of some political movements, the internet and social media permit this on a scale never before possible.

Early childhood education needs to provide more than the platform for the 3 Rs -reading, writing and arithmetic - needed to make schooling easier. Photo / 123rf
Early childhood education needs to provide more than the platform for the 3 Rs -reading, writing and arithmetic - needed to make schooling easier. Photo / 123rf

Democracy may not be sustainable in the way it now operates, especially when digital technologies are being used in some countries to produce extraordinary levels of control over citizens.

The Anthropocene has been defined by the ways in which humans have impacted on the planet. But it's high time we considered its impact on the species which created it — us.

Well beyond the effects of global warming, or the threats posed by new epidemics of infectious disease or obesity, we need to reflect on its impact on our sense of wellbeing.

It is not a matter of being either techno-phobic or techno-optimistic — it's a matter of being techno-pragmatic.

The nature of being human is such that technologies will continue to emerge and we have to work out how to live with them and the impacts that they have on our wellbeing.

Regulation of the digital world will be difficult given the speed of private-sector driven innovation which crosses national boundaries almost instantaneously.

We need to teach kids the emotional self-regulation which is essential if we are to have psychological resilience to rapid and potentially threatening change. Photo / 123rf
We need to teach kids the emotional self-regulation which is essential if we are to have psychological resilience to rapid and potentially threatening change. Photo / 123rf

In Ingenious we argue that we need to think about developing two related skills, especially in young people. The first is the critical thinking required to distinguish what is real from what is not, a skill that will be vital as we face the challenges to our democracy and our personal wellbeing of deep fakes and virtual reality.

The second is the emotional self-regulation which is essential if we are to have psychological resilience to rapid and potentially threatening change.

Luckily, we know a lot about how these skills develop. They have their essential foundations in our first years of life.

Early childhood education needs to provide more than the platform for the 3 Rs -reading, writing and arithmetic - needed to make schooling easier.

It needs to be re-orientated to help develop the new skills necessary for wellbeing in a digital world.

While many things may not be in the power of national governments, this is.

So could be an initiative to form the transnational partnerships needed to monitor, and if necessary regulate, the operation of even more invasive digital technologies yet to emerge.

Surely this is not beyond the ingenuity we evolved and which has brought us so far.

Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation is out now

The book Ingenious looks at innovation from an evolutionary perspective.
The book Ingenious looks at innovation from an evolutionary perspective.