Robots Bowling Alone: Humanistic Factors and Technology

David Koepsell

We live in a culture of increasing alienation. We are estranged from our friends, families, and communities. Work may overwhelm and exhaust us, leaving us little time to commune with others. There are challenges to developing relationships with our coworkers—the average worker now entering the U.S. workforce can expect to have ten jobs by the time he or she is thirty. Our civilization is mobile, and extended families do not move together. Childhood, neighborhood, and school friends cannot expect to remain physically close. Physical separation has been the impetus for the development of technologies meant to bridge time and space, but they may not fill the human needs created by distance.

Alienation refers not only to relationships among people, but also to the ways people relate to their environments. Our species is highly adaptable to differing environments, although there do seem to be limits. Thus, even dense cities have green spaces, and we travel to the countryside for our vacations when we become overwhelmed by the din and speed of city life. An open question remains: what do we require in our environments besides the bare essentials of air, food, and water? Without whatever other essential environmental necessities there may be, what happens to us? What, if anything, do we require as humans from one another and from our environments?

The Myth of Transhumanism

Transhumanism, taken to its extreme, is a stance that denies any inherent human nature—or argues that, if there is one, it can and should be overcome. Best known for his book Citizen Cyborg, my friend the transhumanist James Hughes takes a radical view of humanity. He opposes human-centric notions of rights and believes that human beings are nearly infinitely malleable. While I am drawn to utopian visionaries like Hughes and largely disagree with conservatives like Leon Kass who oppose most kinds of self-modification, I agree with some of Kass’s conclusions about human nature.

We are not infinitely malleable. There are biological limits to human capacities. Obvious limits include our needs for energy. There may also be social limits. We are facing overcrowding—the U.S. population just passed three hundred million this past year, and the world population topped 6.6 billion. The largest mega-cities now host more than twenty million people. Our communities are less livable: in the United States, homogeneous urban sprawl is replacing villages and towns. We are becoming more mobile and less tied to our particular geographic communities.

Our interactions are heavily mediated, when they happen at all. The average U.S. adult watches three hours of television per day, and Internet usage will soon top that. We travel in cars an average of an hour a day, and those of us in major metro areas can expect to spend twice that amount of time. Cell phones and text-messaging abound. Yet very few places remain where we can escape the ever-present threat of intrusion into moments of true solitude, which are as important to have.

In response to these pressures, alienation manifests in isolation and loneliness, feelings of detachment, and actual detachment from networks of friends and families with whom we once were connected. At worst, it results in antisocial behaviors; at best, it affects our psychological well-being. I see in the expanding market for mood-altering designer pharmaceuticals a technological response intended to fix some of the results of technology. This is completely natural, as our technologies have long been created to combat external stressors such as the environment or predators.

Technology surrounds and infuses us, but this is not necessarily new, nor is it anything we should mourn without reflection. Humans have been technological creatures ever since they invented tools and language. Our tools have reshaped human evolution, as developments like clothing and shelter made possible human survival in climates previously deadly. Technology enabled human migration out of Africa, and every stage of our culture and development since then has been enabled and guided in part by technologies. Agriculture, tools for hunting, language and the written word, mathematics, and every innovation that has lifted us beyond reactionary instinct have been technological. We owe our present lives to technology, but at various times in various cultures, no doubt there have been qualms about the direction our lives have taken because of it.

Transhumanism is a myth that breaks down on two levels: (1) since the dawn of civilization, we have been more than biologically “human,” and so transhumanism is nothing new; and (2) there are essential human qualities that must at all costs be preserved even as we continue to co-evolve with our technologies. In fact, I contend that there remain essential human needs that must be met despite our technologies in order for us to be whole, functioning, healthy human beings. Much of our history, culture, and evolution has centered around preserving those necessities. Our technologies, at their best, are directed toward fulfilling human needs.

Meeting Human Needs

I contend, and developmental psychology is showing, that there are certain preconditions necessary to human health, both mental and physical. We are social animals. We need social and physical contact with others. Numerous experiments have shown the negative effects of a lack of such contact on primates, and there is little reason to believe that humans don’t suffer similarly from lack of appropriate contact with other humans.

I propose that we extend the reach of what has come to be known as “human factors analysis” into the realm of the psycho-social. Human factors analysis in engineering was made most famous by the work of Donald Norman, whose seminal book The Design of Everyday Things explains why some products catch on and others fail as a consequence of the fit between their designs and the physiology and psychology of their human users. In that book, Norman defines numerous factors that must be taken account of in the design process, including perceived affordances, causality, visible constraints, mapping, transfer effects, idioms and population stereotypes, and conceptual models. Designs that take these factors into account make for products that are more easily used and provoke less user anxiety. I suggest that another dimension be added to the design of new technologies: one that takes into account the human needs of community and personal contact, as well as harmony with the environment as described above.

Humanistic Factors and Technological Development

It is time to reconsider our general relationship with technology. In many ways, this process has begun. Spurred perhaps by the recent resurgence in environmentalism and growing scientific evidence for global climate change, the new environmentalism seeks to balance human development with sustainability. Part of the sustainability movement has been recognition that technology and development can work hand in hand to achieve progress. Green technologies create new markets and are preferable to back-to-the-land Luddism. They tap into existing human needs and humanistic desires for long-term progress and societal well-being. Other technologies may well follow suit.

The new urbanism also seeks to reintegrate community and green space with high-density living. I would argue that this movement captures “humanistic factors” principles in technological development and recognizes the human needs of family, community, and some integration with the natural environment. This aesthetic is not trans-humanism. The valid part of the trans-humanist argument includes a thesis I accept: that rights attributed to hu-man persons ought not necessarily be denied to nonhuman persons. The invalid
part denies certain necessary and immutable preconditions of being human, preconditions that may in fact be binding upon all primates or even all mammals.

New technologies gain acceptance unpredictably, but, as they do, we ought to be more mindful of how they meet these humanistic factors, just as those who develop those technologies are mindful of human factors when designing them. I am frankly encouraged in many ways by how these factors are being accounted for by end users wh adapt technologies to suit their needs for connection and community. Take, for instance, the rise of so-called social-networking sites on the Web. I am encouraged that we continue to strive to reclaim our humanity in the face of expanding technologies and that the two can flourish together where we embrace humanistic factors as meaningful and important.

Further Reading

  • Hughes, James. “From Human-Racism to Personhood: Humanism after Human Nature.” Free Inquiry 24, no. 4 (June/July 2004): 36–37, critiquing Leon Kass’s anthrocentrism and opposition to modifying humans.
  • Gleick, James. Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything. Pantheon reprint, 2003.
  • Wexler, Bruce E. Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change. Branford Books, 2006.

David Koepsell

David Koepsell is an author, philosopher, attorney (retired), and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy. He has provided commentary regarding ethics, society, religion, and technology on numerous media outlets. He has been a tenured associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management in the Netherlands, visiting professor at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Instituto de Filosoficas, and the Unidad Posgrado, Mexico, director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Comisión Nacional De Bioética in Mexico, and asesor de rector at UAM Xochimilc.

We live in a culture of increasing alienation. We are estranged from our friends, families, and communities. Work may overwhelm and exhaust us, leaving us little time to commune with others. There are challenges to developing relationships with our coworkers—the average worker now entering the U.S. workforce can expect to have ten jobs by the …

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