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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Should We Beware Humanity’s Collective Capacity Reaching Critical Mass?



Editorial in Penang Monthly, October 2016.

Man’s discoveries and inventions revolutionise him. That is a truism.

The conquest of fire altered how and what we eat; the invention of the wheel changed how we travel and how we construct machines; the discovery of germs increased human population as new modes of cultivation kept us better fed; and the harnessing of nuclear power provided us with a new source of energy along with awesome weapons of mass destruction.

Practical knowledge – along with the subsequent technologies – is largely cumulative. And at certain points in time, knowledge makes a transformative breakthrough and the technological innovations push mankind into a new dimension that its members are not prepared for.

We seem to be the only species we know of that serially and continually alters its own conditions of life to an extent that overwhelms its members. This is undeniably true of the last few hundred years.

The problem now is this: the cumulative rate of practical knowledge and the innovative rate of technology have increased so quickly in recent decades that the twenty-first century – now only 16 years old – promises to be a time when most humans are outrun by our own technologies.

Most of us are dependent on our smart phones now, for example. And they only just came into being at the turn of the century. Bombarded with information, we learn to keep knowledge outside ourselves, and rely instead on knowing where to go for information when we need it and not on imbibing knowledge for internal contemplation and analysis.

One could say that humanity’s collective intelligence and productive capacity has achieved critical mass and reached such a point – and perhaps this is what Globalisation in essence really means – that we can rightly consider these faculties to be superhuman, or more correctly, inhuman.

This unleashed collective capacity has a life of its own. It now evolves at an exponential rate and with little consideration for the individual human’s ability to adapt. Technology is enslaving us, one person at a time and one increasingly shortened generation after another.

A collective burn-out threatens, and since it is deeply collective, staying out does not seem to be an option for the individual.

This doomsday sentiment that I am venting here has been around for a while of course. Recent post-apocalyptic films and novels tend to posit disaster in machines running haywire. Movies such as The Terminator series go further and project a supercomputer – Skynet – fatefully going online and taking charge. The film Avengers: Age of Ultron also proposes the disaster that a perfect machine can cause.

Behind all this is a modern sense of vulnerability and helplessness fed by a fear that our machines have become incalculably more powerful than us. But in truth, it is still the human collective (in the form of a state, a corporation, a party, a mad scientist, etc., or a network of these) we are talking about. In reaching new heights in accumulating wealth, in generating knowledge and in regimenting society; the global collective, following its own accelerating dynamics, overwhelms the integrity of the individual.

We can expect retorts and resistance – however vain – to this development to take unexpected and adaptive forms, as has indeed happened with cases such as the revelation of classified information from the US National Security Agency by Eric Snowden or the disclosures by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, not to mention horrifying acts of terrorism aimed at disrupting daily civility.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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