Should We Be 50% Amish?
In my view, humans have the potential to always be superior to robots in contextual reasoning, lateral thinking, judgment, advocacy, and morality. This does not mean that every human is better than every robot in relation to each of those. Instead, humans as a population will always have an advantage over machines. What then can humans do to increase their skills in human advantaged areas? In my view, it is to become “50% Amish” and reduce the use of technology where it should not be used.
The Amish are quite interesting, a Swiss-German Christian sect predominantly in the United States. They have decided to fix their technological use at that which existed somewhere in the mid-1800s. They do not reject technology entirely. In my view, that would be impossible for any human to achieve — even hunter-gatherers have the technology. If you run naked off into the jungle, a human with modern physiology will die shortly after that. Why the mid-1800’s as a level of technology? One part of the answer is no doubt that that is a level of technology that existed when the Amish religion was developing in frontier American history. But their technology is chosen (and new technologies rejected) so that they can engage in hard yet satisfying labour with time for family and spirituality. Men will work fields with horse-drawn ploughs engage in carpentry or metalwork. Women will do embroidering, cooking, and washing manually. Technology is not rejected on a wholesale level. Landline phones may be used to trade goods and derive market prices, but there are no mobile phones, especially at the kitchen table. Hospitals with all of the modern technology may be visited, even if the trip is on a horse-drawn buggy — although they can rent a driver with a car in an emergency. Many will use specially made word processors for business record keeping and data entry without an internet connection.
Let me be clear that I am not advocating a return to the specific Amish life, merely to incorporate the thing that they do well: mastering control over their interaction with technology. I don’t think that widespread adoption of the Amish career paths, societal roles, manual labour will lead to a positively developing technology. Indeed, my chosen career path of a handsome and well-dressed tax lawyer and technologist is undoubtedly not available. And I think that developing new technology is essential to our progress as humans. Instead, we should choose the parts of technology where it would inhibit the development of our human advantages.
A Place to Think
If we are trying to develop our empathy, text messages or retweeting comments about some favoured political cause will not assist us to develop. Instead, we should spend time face to face with another human and understand their fears and weaknesses, and passions. By having deep and uninterrupted conversations with other humans, using our full array of verbal and nonverbal communication, can we develop our empathy to be greater than robots? We should not forget that the first-ever chatbot Eliza, gave an appearance of concern and empathy by reflecting back any statements as a question to the user.
User: “I’ve been thinking about my partner.”
Eliza: “Why have you been thinking about your partner?”
User: “They’ve seemed more distant to me recently.”
Eliza: “What about them makes you think they have been more distant to you recently?”
This (example) interaction gives an appearance of empathy but is not real empathy. People may become engaged by such interactions, just as they may feel engaged by comments on a Facebook post to the effect of “OMG, that’s terrible.” But these are not interactions that are developing empathy. If we use technology as a crutch, we can weaken our natural strengths. Then when the time comes where someone needs your human strength, such as empathy, they may indeed turn to a robot instead.
The same applies to other human strengths. If your response to a problem is to Google it, you can hardly be said to be developing your lateral thinking or creativity. Repeating political sound bites means you can hardly be developing your advocacy or morality. If you let the computer decide for you, you can hardly be developing your judgment.
The idea behind being 50% Amish is not that we reject technology altogether or retard its development, but that we restrain technology where it is best to let our human advantaged abilities flourish. There are a number of tech moguls who have removed almost all electronic devices from certain parts of their households. Children play not with iPads, but with wooden blocks. It’s interesting that having become aware of the addictiveness of their own technology, they remove it from their own children.
We have a generalised awareness and desire to reduce our mindless use of technology, whether social media or internet news, or videos. There seems to be a widespread understanding that it is neither useful nor beneficial. Although it is enjoyable, the absent-minded use of technology is like binging on junk food: it’s tasty at the time but in no way satisfying, and the long term is harmful. Instead of declining to catch up with a friend and instead of sending them messages of support, if we reframe it that the necessity of a long coffee chat assists our emotional intelligence and thus our career opportunities, we can see the use of such time as an investment in ourselves. If instead of Googling an answer, we set aside time to think through an answer and reasoning from first principles, we will develop the mental muscles that we use for thinking through how the world works. And if you help your neighbour in need, you might find that you are practising your morality more than updating your profile picture to support a cause.
And to paraphrase a quote about tax: “give unto robots that which is just done by robots and give unto humans that which is best done by humans.”