Before we look at the frameworks, capacities and potential ways forward for humane tech that can serve the aims of improved social outcomes, enhanced human health and community well-being, and ecological sustainability, it is useful to first surface some fundamental questions about the relationship between technology and humanity. This relationship goes back at least 200,000 years. Technology is arguably the most important way humans are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom and is, therefore, inseparable from what makes us human.
Perhaps the warmest and fuzziest apotheosis of 20th century techno-optimism was Buckminster Fuller’s challenge to “make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” This remains a decent approximation of what is intended by technological innovation that serves social innovation.
Yet, technological advancement has always ushered in a new way to intervene in the environment. From tools that permitted us to hunt certain megafauna to extinction and blades and controlled fire that enabled the clearing of forests for agriculture, to the burning of fossil fuels, the splitting and fusing of the atom, and the acidification and despoiling of oceans, humans’ relationship with technology appears to be a perpetual Faustian bargain; while these advancements have eased suffering, extended human life (weaponry notwithstanding) and enhanced material prosperity and understanding is far beyond what our ancestors could have imagined. These tools have also resulted in ecological degradation, and a path-dependence that appears to lead inexorably to widespread misery and ecological catastrophe.
The weight of evidence suggests that the more advanced our technology is, the more rapid and profound the degradation. Technology has not yet proven, for example, to lower carbon emissions – it has only improved efficiency, which, according to Jevon’s principle, simply facilitates more consumption, growth, and merely a different flavour of ruin.
Even the aspects of tech that should be utterly under our control seem to elude the capacity of governments and societies to address. Consider inequality: thanks largely to the rise of the tech titans, inequality is at levels equalling or exceeding the ‘gilded age’ of the late 1800s.
An average American worker would need to work almost 4.7 million years (without spending anything), or more than 17 times longer than Homo sapiens have existed on Earth, to reach Jeff Bezos’ level of wealth1; Morgan Stanley predicts Elon Musk will be the first trillionaire in human history. In this light, is it a delusional fantasy to imagine technology as ‘sustainable’ or ‘regenerative’? Mere ‘hopium,’ to borrow eco-theologian Michael Dowd’s phrase?
A Crash Course on Humans
What makes up a human? One would argue cells, DNA, and chemicals; others would take a more introspective approach and say soul, consciousness, and spirit. Both would be correct. Acknowledging the vast array of facets that make up human nature and its brilliance and faults will shape how we utilize and form technology in the future.
By considering the assets and fragilities of humanity and creating a foundational model, the implementation of interfaces that puts humans at the center of technology can help protect and foster humanity. Sub-facets of academia have looked at humanity from a vast array of perspectives, from sociology and psychology to biology and neuroscience, each with its unique approach to humanity.
Our goal is to gather the best from all these perspectives and collectively understand, shallowly, the human conditions: to love, to laugh, to focus, to learn. And then to ask ourselves what role does and should technology play in this complex network we call humanity. We would argue that how can we ever seek to integrate digital technology if we do not honestly know ourselves? Without these foundational pieces, we are patching a leaky pipe with a post-it note; it may work for a second, but it will never solve the problem. How can current pedagogical tools and fixes, like tech for good movements, apply band-aid fixes on a problem they cannot begin to comprehend?
So, where do we start to comprehend such a massive concept? We look inwards to the self and us as individuals, then broaden our understanding outward. Understanding our behaviour, character, cognition and emotional makeup, we start to shape what strengths and weaknesses humanity may have in our relationship with technology. But what is ‘self?’ Paul Thagard, philosopher and cognitive scientist, defines the self as being “best understood as a multilevel system, encompassing mechanisms that interact across four interconnected levels: social, individual, neural, and molecular.”2 This multimodal, holistic approach is our focus for shaping the human condition using three traditional components and one holistic aspect of the mind through a new lens.
Cognition shapes how we see our world through our awareness. We perceive, conceive, reason, judge, imagine and remember. From all this, one prominent function becomes incredibly important for us to focus on our perception, learn from those perceptions, and imagine what may be; our attention, which is an incredible human function, can focus our awareness of all of the stimuli around us to the important. Processes such as competitive selection, top-down sensitivity control, filtering, and the highly dynamic functions of working memory increase our sensitivity to and shorten response latencies for different stimuli we interact with in our environments every day.3
“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.”
Our ability to adapt to information and utilize reason and thought to understand our world creates our intellect. Intelligence and our understanding have come a long way from when Edward Thorndike first conceptualized a scientific approach to the psychological study of educational practice and achievement. We now understand intelligence as a measure that should only account for academic achievement. Even now, our focus has moved toward understanding emotional intelligence’s power over all facets of our life. Studies have shown that our uniquely human ability of emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of academic performance,5 job satisfaction,6 and success in an individual’s career.7 Our cognition shapes who and what we focus on and what we deem is important enough to focus on; how our cognition manipulates our perceived world is key to understanding how we operate within it.
While cognition shapes our awareness and understanding of our world, conation connects those behaviours to our knowledge, desires, instincts and drives—everything that makes humans human. Human agency —or will — has been proposed as a mystical ability to choose goals that matter to us and how we act on them. As defined by Amartya Sen, human agency is the step to move past the behaviourist approach, where humans are seen as helpless golem-like creatures shaped solely by their environment.8 Through the ages, philosophy, psychology, and art have defined conation—human agency—in different forms, from the Greco-Roman philosophical idea of eph’hēmin or boulesthai to indigenous teaching of animism. Still, they all relate to the holistic focus on the intrinsic value of human well-being.
There is no one definition for emotion in literature. However, we all agree on an abstract reference list, including anger, happiness, guilt, sadness, hopefulness, and so on. Vaguely, emotions can be categorized into multidimensional factors: episodic or temperaments, conscious or instinctive, short or long term, intricate or primitive cognitive cost, expansive prototypical expression or minute, motivation or none, and some as utterly human. How do we use our emotions to remain resilient against challenges and adapt to adversity? Resilience is a uniquely human experience to face and struggle through the worst of the worst, yet each human has a different capacity for resilience. Studies have shown that there is a link between the hedonistic and eudaimonic emotions of happiness and well-being, and resilience.9 Our emotional regulation and the spectrum of emotions we face play a considerable part in the resiliency and functionality of our psychology.
Character, or what we synonymously know as personality, is our attributes and traits mainly made up of moral or social attitudes. We shape this part of ourselves to create an identity and then recreate our identities over and over through resocialization, as we take on new roles, values and norms. We seek our perceptions of ourselves through observation of others’ views of us, thus creating a looking glass coined by Charles Horton Cooley. Our character shapes our purpose, autonomy, fulfillment and sense-making. Philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have studied these intangible notions throughout the ages.
Take a few deep breaths. Notice how you are now purposely aware of how often you are breathing, how your chest feels rising and falling, and how the fabric moves across your chest with each breath. This is an example of shifting your attention and organizing your perceptions to draw you into a state of focus awareness. But how long does our attention last? Are you still aware of your breathing? Most likely, you were unaware of your breathing again until we brought your attention back to it. This is what social media does every day, commoditizing people’s attention for its sake.
Negative - We experience a neurological “high” from switching content, and on average, we switch content every 19 seconds.10 - The presence of a smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity by a marked amount without even having the smartphone on.11 - Heavy smartphone usage has shown increases in hyperactivity as well as impaired attention and changes in social cognition.12 - There is a directional correlation between ADHD and increased Social Media Use (SMU).13 - Our desire to share moments while they are going on is hindering our enjoyment of them.14 - Instagram use has been linked to a change in eating behaviours and Orthorexia Nervosa symptoms.15 - Social Networking Site (SNS) addiction16 alters our brain structures.17 - Those that sought out social media connections over direct connections are more lonely than the aforementioned group.18
Positive - With the support of technology, those who are non-verbal individuals can become valedictorians.19 - Increases social connection and social capital.20 - Disease tracking has become a community effort with tracking such as during COVID-19.21 - Machine Learning to monitor depression and detect self-harm incidents before they happen.22 - Social media use can offer a crucial role in adolescent development and identity formation.23 - Spending time on one’s social networking profiles may cause them to hold more positive self-views. 24 - Accurate self-presentation online plays a considerable role in positive experiences with technology.25 - Brain imaging technologies have significantly evolved our knowledge of mental illnesses and contributed to finding effective interventions.26
The Collective Conceptualization of Humanity
While we would never be able to solely look at the individuals without the conceptualization of the cultural, familial, and organizational roles and standards that shape our etiology of the effects of our psychological conditions and quirks, society and its interaction with individuals goes beyond the simplistic view of determinism.
Societal impacts and the social contracts which we hold have shifted as our societies shift and blend to become less homogeneous. With that, our understanding of other cultures also becomes an important factor.
Understanding the play between our personal moral codes, shaped by our culture and the larger ethical structure of our societies into mainstream thinking; however, what happens when the mainstream acceptance of technology potentially hinders the positive proximal processes of human growth? Do our dominant beliefs around technology shape how we use it and whom we include in its benefits?
While the term “culture” has been around since at least the days of Cicero, our meaning of the word only developed at the end of the 19th century. Anthropologically, its meaning has been very loosely defined into
the encapsulation of all practices of information exchange in symbolic systems through behavioural means through the “how,” “what,” and “why” humans interact with artifacts, values and assumptions;
however, even into the early 1990’s there was still a lack of agreement on this definition, with authors like Kroeber and Kluckhohn compiling a list of 164 different definitions of culture.27
Many of our basic assumptions that we rely on to shape our values and technological creations are so ingrained that we tend to take them for granted and are often invisible for outsiders to perceive, for instance, our Canadian assumption of measuring travel through hours or minutes versus the United Kingdom approach of using miles. However, it is important to note that culture and mores are still learned compared to human nature, which is the commonality that every human holds no matter who or where they are. Human nature is universal and inherited and can be fine-tuned by the cultures individuals belong to. Being human is part of belonging to many cultural groups, from nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, generational level, roles, occupations, social class, and so on. Due to the multicultural status of everyone, the unique make-up of culture is a very individual construct despite existing on a global scale.
Understanding how social contracts have changed throughout time allows for a deeper analysis of human nature and society. Social contracts exist in many forms between individuals, organizations, and institutions to order our social life and link them to our schemas. Through the words of Beth Rubin, it connects “individual troubles to public issues,” or connecting “the micro to macro” (p. 328).28 The psychological contracts we hold enforce the reciprocal obligations we must uphold.
Through COVID-19, we have seen these contracts be modified even further as we have shifted to working from home, where the delineation between “work” time and “personal” time has become even more blurred, to the detriment of some. Expanding this psychological perspective of social contracts blends into the world of sociological implications of understanding how they affect our macro levels of socialization and partaking in social networks. Normative expectations of how we interact within families and cultures are deeply rooted implicitly in our social relationships.
In contrast, governmental and employment expectations form an explicit function of our social contracts. In our work schemas and social contracts built around that, we have seen a shift from the old North American social contract of life, the so-called white picket fence dream: go to school, get married, have children if you were a woman or become the breadwinner if you were a man and climb the career ladder in the same company, buy a house, go to church, and retire. Whereas the new social contracts of life focused on a less orderly life with more debt, more diverse family options and employment options, with side hustles and pet parents dominating the millennial life. Technology has created a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week work life that has created the convenience of working when you want; however, it has also created the expectation that people must always be accessible.
While power structures have existed since the first rulers, matriarchs, kings and queens, the study of power structures was born out of C. Wright Mills’ and others’ works through the 1950s. We see power structures as those in upper social classes, corporations, foundations, think tanks, non-profits, political parties, and the “state.” No matter the structure, the authority within a group has been ever-shifting through millennia, creating inequalities, privilege, and status. We have seen power structures shift with the suffrage movement, black lives matter, and, most recently, the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the USA, which has moved women’s rights back generations. Until unethical power structures are called out, we continue to live within them and have their presence influence our everyday lives.
Social contracts and power structures that have been held by humanity have always shifted with the creation of new technology; the printing press brought in the Reformation Movement, and the light bulb created an increased focus on urban development and increased the acceleration of the economy. With the invention of digital technology such as the computer and the smartphone, our social contracts have turned from having delineated boundaries between work and life to a never-ending onslaught of always having to be “on,” attached to a device and ready to leap to a response at a moment’s notice. We have also seen individuals become more polarized in their opinions and beliefs in fake news skyrocketing. While humanity has always been in the business of gossip and “us versus them” mentalities, our new connected world allows for the transmission of these fanatical ideas to spread like wildfire. So, has anything good come out of connecting our cultures? Where does social media bridge the yawning voids between us, if at all?
- Fake news increases fake memories of emotional, highly consequential political decisions.29
- Fake news is spreading faster than ever because digital tech spreads true and fake news at the same rate, but humans accelerate it.30
- Those exposed to conspiracy theory videos were less likely to think that there is a concern about climate change and reduced prosocial behaviour.31
- Well-placed zealots in social media networks can induce gerrymandering and sway voter decisions.32
- Both trust and empathy in face-to-face, important conversations are lower when a mobile phone is present. Having mobile phones present may hinder the creation of relationship formation.33
- Social media increases the out-group effects of political opponents and increases political polarization.34
- Technology has allowed for cultural products and expressions to become a part of our everyday lives.
- Technology is preserving endangered languages through digital programs – e.g. FirstVoice and the Canadian Language Museum.35
Through our crash course on humanity, we have moved from an inner-looking approach to understanding ourselves to that of a large-scale systems approach to understanding societal contexts; however, none of that can be conceptualized without our history.
The theological epistemology of days gone past has expanded and shifted their questioning to incorporate different historical impacts and changing cultural dynamics. However, without our acknowledgement of the chronosystem that operates around us, technology would not be shaped into what it is today; Marx would not have challenged the capitalist mode of production; Bronfenbrenner would not have encapsulated the human condition into his ecological systems theory. Our chronosystem encapsulates our external experiences, events, catastrophes and how the timing of all these things can affect a person.
While the connection between theological ethics and questioning and science has seemingly come into its own in the last few years, the messy relationship between the two has been intertwined since man first created fire and believed it to be a gift from a higher power. Technological advancement impacts all our domains of existence, especially as technology becomes more advanced and ingrained into our daily lives.
Those like Jacques Ellul believe that technology would make life more complex and be seen as a regulator of the status quo – with technology diminishing the value of theocracy and humanities. However, there is another side to this coin; without religion and lore, the culture and social behaviours of the past and present would not be shaped the way they are, and our technology would not be pushed in the direction we are moving in today.
From the dissemination of religious beliefs to the sponsorship of epistemological pursuits (think of those like Isaac Newton, Roger Bacon, Copernicus, and Descartes), religion has shaped what and how we communicate and understand the world. To quote Marshall McCluhan, “the medium is the message…accelerat[ing] and enlarge[ing] the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.”36
The Historical Context
From personal to societal histories, we are shaped by environmental events and experiences. COVID-19 will be considered a major technological event that will shape the historical context for generations through policy decisions, social folkways and mores, and how we maintain connections with the people around us. The historical context helps us understand past generations and the choices of those in the driver’s seat of technological advancements. Those growing up in eras such as the Great Depression fostered a generation of North Americans that honoured modesty and resourcefulness that can be seen to this day in the resurgence of do-it-yourself and recycled items that we enjoy every day. Understanding how events such as the Great Depression led to sliced bread and other innovative feats – for instance, the desk telephone, jet engine and discovery of nuclear fission – can not only give us hope for the future but also offers us a guidebook for how humanity is shaped and has been shaped throughout time.
The world has undoubtedly changed from the pre-Copernican era of the Ptolemaic model of the heavens. Our technology, shaped by our dynamic cultural changes, has caused a shift from not only where we see ourselves as a center for all that exists in the universe to understanding that we are just one small fraction of it. It leads us to question where technology’s role in our history and theology lies. The answer to where on the continuum of help or hindrance technology is may be up to the eye of the beholder. Yet there is no disagreement that no matter its role – either benign or malignant – technology has shaped our past, present, and our future.
- IInciting violence and creating platforms for genocidal narratives – E.g. Facebook’s complicity in the Rohingya genocide.
- Ingrained stereotypical biases in AI algorithms are more likely to associate minorities with words such as “poor,” namely Google’s search engine.37
- Open source electronic books and historical projects that are opening the world to learning more – E.g. Project Gutenberg.
- The communal effort of those in the tech space built incredible projects such as the Mozilla project – Creating the browser firefox that we all know and use to this day.
Humans are complicated. We are built on a rich array of thoughts, feelings, relationships and values. Through this surface foray into humanity, A foundational model of purpose-built, socially good technology that acknowledges every human being’s uniqueness can begin to form through this examination. But this is only the beginning, and we do not have all of the answers, but with continued learning and conversations, we can build a world with restorative and socially beneficial technologies.
Learn more with the help of some of these resources:
Megan (she/her) is the Community Outreach Specialist for the Centre for Social Impact Technology. Originally with a background in the hospitality industry and data management, as well as an academic background in criminal justice and situational crime prevention, Megan’s work through the Centre for Social Impact Technology draws on systems thinking and multidisciplinary approaches to complex problems. Megan is a fellow of the RSA. She has been quoted in reports relating to public interest technology and is published in the areas of cult practices in social media and asymmetrical Indigenous parole conditions.
As Executive Director of the Institute for Community Prosperity at MRU, the administrative host for the Centre, James has developed or co-created social innovation, leadership, and systems-focused learning programs for both undergraduates and the broader community. A former foundation executive and philanthropy and social change consultant, including as Vice President and Program Director of the Gordon Foundation, James currently serves as a Director on the Board of Alberta Ecotrust, as an Advisor to the Nonprofit Resilience Lab, and on the Editorial Advisory Board of The Philanthropist. He is the lead author of an annual scan of trends and emerging issues, produced in partnership with Calgary Foundation. His recent contributions to community-partnered knowledge production include Aging and Thriving in the 21st Century, with ATCO; The Right to Eat Right: Connecting Upstream and Downstream Food Security, with the YYC Food Security Fund and Place2Give Foundation; Merging for Good: A Case-Based Framework for Nonprofit Amalgamations, with Trellis, The Problem Solver’s Companion: A Practitioners’ Guide to Starting a Social Enterprise, co-produced with Shaun Loney and Encompass Co-op; In Search of the Altruithm: AI and the Future of Social Good, co-authored with Alina Turner of Helpseeker; and A Student Guide to Mapping a System, co-produced with Systems-Led Leadership and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford. James is a member of Catalyst 2030, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Jenalyn is a third year Psychology major leaning towards a career in social psychology. With a current GPA of 3.98, Jenalyn has consistently been placed on the Dean's List and President's Honour Roll. She has won multiple scholarships and awards including the President's Scholarship, the Jason Lang Scholarship, and the Swami Vivekananda Scholarship. In addition to her studies, Jenalyn enjoys putting extra time and effort towards volunteering in the community. Currently, she works with faculty members as a student representative in the Psychology EDI Committee and helps encourage strong learning skills in fellow Psychology students with her work in the Peer Learning Program.
Family holds great importance to Jenalyn. As a second-generation immigrant, she has been grateful to be working as a research assistant at The Immigrant Education Society (TIES). Along with her contributions in strengthening Calgary's immigrant-serving sector, Jenalyn hopes to use her knowledge and experience at TIES to fly in and support her family in the Philippines.
1 This anecdote is from James Stauch, (2022). Sh*t’s Getting Real: 2022 Environmental Scan. Institute for Community Prosperity & Calgary Foundation. https://www.mtroyal.ca/nonprofit/InstituteforCommunityProsperity/_pdfs/2022-Environmental-Scan-Sh-ts-Getting-Real.pdf
2 Paul Thagard (2014) The self as a system of multilevel interacting mechanisms, Philosophical Psychology,27:2, 145-163, DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2012.725715.
3 Eric I. Knudsen, “Fundamental Components of Attention,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 30, no. 1 (July 2007): 57–78, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.neuro.30.051606.094256.
4 Brie Gertler, “Self-Knowledge > Knowledge of the Self (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-knowledge/supplement.html.
5 Nicolás Sánchez-Álvarez, María Pilar Berrios Martos, and Natalio Extremera, “A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship between Emotional Intelligence and Academic Performance in Secondary Education: A Multi-Stream Comparison,” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (July 21, 2020), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01517.
6 Qaiser Suleman et al., “Correlating Emotional Intelligence with Job Satisfaction: Evidence from a Cross-Sectional Study among Secondary School Heads in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan,” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (March 13, 2020), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00240.
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20 Burke, Moira, Cameron Marlow, and Thomas Lento. “Social Network Activity and Social Well-Being.” Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’10, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1145/1753326.1753613. Antonucci, Toni C, Kristine J Ajrouch, and Jasmine A Manalel. “Social Relations and Technology: Continuity, Context, and Change.” Innovation in Aging 1, no. 3 (November 1, 2017). https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igx029.
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