What does it mean to be human?

Guest Blog from: John Benedict

“… I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, cancer on this planet, you are a plague, and we…are the cure…”

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Eighteen years have passed since the birth of a blind child and his graduation from high school. Eighteen years ago, there were no iPods, USSR was a superpower, Japan looked to the United States for economic leadership and support, smoking was permitted on airplanes, there were no companies which researched on biotechnology and only a handful of mobility and medical specialists taught in the nation’s public schools.

In eighteen more years, today’s blind infants will graduate from a strikingly different world. What we teach these kids today will determine how well they survive in their future. We have to make educated guesses about that future (and keep guessing) to prepare them for success.

When a much earlier world changed from a hunting-and-gathering culture to an agricultural age, human relationships were redefined and concepts about space and time changed. The speed of life accelerated. Leadership shifted; old power structures were replaced by the newly empowered. Old definitions and institutions collapsed and new ones took their place.

The hunting-to-survive stage lasted for a million years, the agricultural age – another six thousand years and the Industrial age lasted three hundred years. Some futurists defined an information age and then declared it dead after forty years.The concept of a “job” was also invented by the Industrial age. It pulled the children off the farms to the cities where they had to adjust to new spatial and temporal rules. A job required an employee to be at a certain place for a set amount of time, to do repetitive tasks – to “work” at producing things that were not immediately relevant to the individual’s life. In exchange for the loss of an agricultural lifestyle, employers gave steady wages (not affected by the weather or natural rhythms).

The industrial age saw the creation of vacations, health insurance, and sick days; all resulting from the invention of the job (a new way to work). This change was traumatic for a farm-based  agricultural culture, and many resisted. Human beings no longer were “ruled” by their natural rhythms or by the seasons. Respect for the wisdom of the elders of the society declined as their power was bypassed; they no longer controlled the source of wealth, and their knowledge was irrelevant to the new age.

The rules are ever changing in this age of communication. The life cycle of a business is only seven years now. The cycle in technology is down to six months, and in the software business, if a company is to survive, it must bring new products to market within two or three months. There is hardly time to plan; certainly the present is of little help.

The amount of information in the world is doubling every eight years. One-half of everything a college student learned in his or her freshman year is obsolete by the time they graduate. The amount of knowledge we are asking a typical high school senior to learn is more information than their grandparents absorbed in a lifetime. Our decision load is growing. We are running too fast, making too many decisions too quickly about things we know too little about. How can all these grand ideas about individual web pages, global consciousness, and the coming of massively capable workstations ever be implemented when we hardly have time to eat? This is the major social question facing the beneficiaries of the communications age.

The question remains – with advancements in technology, do we have too little time for what is important and much more for what might not? Are we missing out on morals and courtesies and relying too much on an online presence? We may be called social beings, but are we stepping away from human interaction? The answers to all these are terrifying to even think about! It’s time that we reclaim what we lost.

I finish this essay as I started – with a quote from The Matrix Revolutions.

“…Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although… only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love…”

The machines may be right but our entire purpose is built on something as insipid as love.

John Benedict is from Hyderabad, India and works with Amazon, India.