Technology increases our humanity
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the night sky"
- Jack Kerouac
What makes you feel most human and alive? When I ask people this they always give me a wide range of answers: hiking in nature, hanging out with people they love, listening to live music, being part of a community, creating art, reading, and learning. For me, it comes down to two things: being in the ocean and spending time with people who are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. I love freediving and have never felt as calm, peaceful, or as connected to nature as when I hold my breathe and dive into the deep. But I feel as equally alive when I'm talking to someone bursting with energy and love for their specific craft. Whether that is talking to a founder building a company or an outdoors hiking guide who simply loves the natural world — spending time with these people is when I feel most human. To me, that's the optimal expression of being human, those moments when you feel most alive, whenever it may be, and I fundamentally believe that technology helps us get there.
The tech world isn't without its criticisms and rightly so. Our industry is often placed front and center for destroying nature and upending traditional ways of life, gluing us to our little screens, removing us from serendipitous encounters, and separating us from each other. It has ushered in an incredible era of innovation and allowed us to produce and share information faster than ever. But disruption means that someone is getting disrupted so the loss of jobs and livelihoods were supposedly part of the deal. More so than this, technology has also exploited and accentuated our weaknesses to specific chemicals. Every year the smartest graduates in the world are hired by the big tech companies with the sole purpose of making us all more addicted to their products. As Facebook becomes smarter and learns more about our behavior they can hack our brain chemistry to keep us scrolling through their feeds, simulating a non-stop gambling machine rewarding little dopamine hits to our monkey brains.
Despite all this, I still believe that technology fundamentally makes us all more human. To explore this further let's start by exploring how I define what it means to be human. I posit that to be human is 1) to survive and 2) to create. At a very basic level, to be human, humanity has to exist. If our species is wiped out by an incoming meteor, deadly virus, or nuclear war we simply cease to exist. Outside of survival, to be human is to create. I'm using the word create here in the broadest possible terms including creating art, creating a company, creating offspring to pass on our DNA, and creating moments with people we love. On some level we're all afraid of death and creating helps trick us into believing we can somehow live on past our temporary lives. I've noticed that almost everyone I talk to has a movie showing in their heads with themselves as the main hero playing an important role in a story that extends past their lifetimes. So if surviving and creating is the key to making us more human, I'm going to explain why technology has played an undeniable role to facilitate this.
Nature wants to kill us. There's no denying that. Death is an invention of life to clear out the old and bring in the new. We're all going to die, but technology has been remarkable in extending our lifespans and continuing to push further the edge of what nature intended. In 1798 when Edward Jenner invented the world's first vaccine, smallpox killed approximately 10% of the population. Fast forward to 1980 and because of the invention of vaccination, the WHO declared smallpox eradicated. Through the use of inoculation technology, Jenner was able to demonstrate the success of his methods and prove his hypothesis. He's likely saved more lives than any other human in history.
Today, scientists at NASA are using the latest advancements in telescope technology to successfully catalog all big asteroids (dinosaur killers are asteroids that are 1km+) that might cause irrevocable damage to Earth. At the same time, Elon Musk is busy developing re-usable rocket technology to send humans to Mars as an insurance policy. Technology extends our lifespans and keeps humanity alive. If you ask me what is the meaning of life I don't believe there's an objective answer for everyone, I think that everyone should go out and define what it means for them. But if I had to give an all-encompassing answer, I don't think there is a higher calling than preserving our humanity and sending that into the stars.
“There is someone out there today who is going to encounter technology in the future that doesn’t exist today, that they will play as their instrument to the world and the world will be better off because of it”
- Josh Wolfe
The second characteristic of humanity is to create. There are two core levels as to how technology enables this. First, we've used technology to build tools that allow us to create. Today we live in a society of abundance that is sprawling with tools ranging from traditional art tools (paintbrush, camera, carving materials) to the latest tools in design and computer graphics. All of this allows us to increase our humanity by communicating with others and sharing our stories. In 1974, Ed Catmull earned his Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Utah where he pioneered texture mapping (the ability to define high-frequency detail and color on a 3D model) and invented the Catmull-Clark subdivision surface (the process of creating smooth surfaces in computer graphics). He then joined Lucasfilm to bring this new technology to the entertainment world and co-founded Pixar with Steve Jobs where they mastered the art of telling great stories through animation technology. He now runs all of Walt Disney Animation Studios. At the core, we are audio-visual communicators and technology has enhanced our ability to do this better than ever.
In addition to this, technology also gives us more options to pick exactly what it is that we want to create. I can sit here in front of my screen and have direct access to some of the greatest works of art in history. As information becomes commoditized by the internet, almost everyone can learn what they want for free. This allows us to become more creative as we can access the knowledge web of human history, giving us more choice and inspiration. New tools can also help us strengthen existing creations. I'm able to use my phone to access my memories through photos, each time adding more depth and meaning to those past moments I've created. Overall, technology extends our freedoms and expands our capabilities to create which is where I believe the pursuit of happiness lies.
Through my definition of what makes us human, to live, and to create, technology increases our humanity. Not only does it help extend our lifespans, but it also acts as a tool to create and is used to provide us with greater choices and inspiration. With all this in mind, I want to express that the work here is not done it's just getting started. Our world is in a constant state of decay, everything if left alone tends towards entropy. It's only through pure human tenacity and innovation that we can fight this entropy and use technology to build new tools to increase our humanity. This is why I spend most of my days thinking about technology and supporting relentless founders. Founders who fight back against the natural state of decay and push humanity forward inspire me more than anything — working with them is when I feel most human and alive.