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Here’s a thought: 

  • "Chimpanzees, genetically close to us though they are, have bodies two to five times as strong as ours on a relative basis and brains about a quarter as big. In humans, energy that would have gone into other organs instead is used to run energy-hungry brains." 

The reason why we can get away with our comparatively puny bodies is that we have mastered the use of tools. The energy we expend in our muscles is, therefore, more efficiently and precisely applied – allowing a little to go a long way.

In a fascinating think-piece for IEEE Spectrum, William Davidow argues that, compared to other organisms, tool-using humanity has gained access to an additional ‘dimension’ – i.e. a new way of interacting with the world: 

  • "Living creatures started out evolving in one dimension defined by the physical world and another defined by the biological world. Then came humans, who added a third dimension—the artificial one engendered by tools and technology." 

Now, in the 21st century, humanity has opened up a fourth dimension: 

  • "…with the widespread use of the Internet, a fourth dimension has been added—that of virtual reality, or cyberspace. It is indeed appropriate to consider this last dimension as real and distinct from the tools and technologies of the past, because however fast those things may have changed, the rate of change in the virtual space is much faster. It took a lot of time to build physical infrastructure—railroads, highways, bridges, skyscrapers, and so forth. But in virtual space, entire new infrastructures can arise overnight, as Google and Facebook have proved." 

The pace of change in this fourth dimension is so fast that we’re finding it hard to adapt: 

  • "An example is our financial institutions, transformed in the past 20 years by radical innovations, such as the introduction of high-speed trading… and the immensely complex new investment vehicles known as derivatives. These innovations, enabled by improvements in computing power and telecommunications, have made markets more volatile and played leading roles in the recent worldwide economic meltdown. And our regulatory framework has failed to keep up…" 

As if its immense speed wasn’t enough to cope with, the new technology is also highly addictive: 

  • "…our brains seem to crave the virtual world, with repeated exposure producing changes that resemble drug addiction. According to Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, the excitement of getting an e-mail alert causes a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that reinforces the behavior and thus drives us to crave more such stimulation. Before long, it becomes impossible for people to put down their iPhones and BlackBerries." 

Davidow argues that we need to regain control, but admits this is easier said than done – as our attempts at financial regulation prove: 

  • "Ultimately, the only way to deal with financial innovation in a virtual world is through international regulatory systems based on commonly accepted principles. But as a former head of the Bank for International Settlements told me, good luck with that." 

"The tools are making the rules," concludes Mr Davidow – a judgment, one assumes, on our technology, not our politicians.

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