Rome 30,000 B.C.
There is no such thing as urban sprawl. Highways are trails. Cities are settlements. Delivering a few sentences to someone in London requires crossing deserts and blazing through dense forests. The time and energy required make the journey all but impossible. And even if you could get to London, there is no common language; your grunts are different from my grunts. So, humans reside in pockets of isolation. Small networks dot the planet, but connections are limited in both scope and strength.
Rome 200 A.D.
If you want to send someone in London a message, you have a few options. Now that Latin is a thing, you can easily convey what you’re trying to say. The hard part is saying something in one place and someone hearing it in another. You decide to write your sentences down on a scroll, but now you must figure out delivery logistics. There are roads, but there is no UPS. You can hire a messenger, or you can ride a horse, but both options are expensive. The global network of humans has expanded, but connections are pricy.
You want to send a message to someone in London? Easy. Send a text, start a zoom, or say what’s up on the phone. And if you want to deliver your sentences in person? Catch a flight, drive a car, or take a boat. Your network exceeds that of Julius Caesar. What used to take an army of messengers, now takes two thumbs and an internet connection.
The ‘what’ of this story is not important. Communication is just one facet of society that has benefited from the explosive growth of technology. As technology has redefined field after field (from how we deliver our food to how we fight our wars), a pattern has begun to emerge. As we progress, there are more and more options to choose from . In the case of communication, as we went from isolated caves to ever expanding social networks, our decisions have shifted from a local to a global context. Expression is no longer confined to cave paintings. Emojis, gifs, avatars, and video allow us to express ourselves in any form to anyone anywhere. The pendulum of time and innovation has swung society from one extreme to another.
However, while technology has redefined what we do and how we do, it has yet to redefine who we are. Instead of apes in caves, we are now apes in skyscrapers: closing deals and calling friends. But we are still apes. The ability to call an Uber or order a pizza, does not change the fact that we are still limited by our biology: who we are, a collection of genes drawn from a pool of distant ancestors, still dictates most of our life. You may point to hospitals and doctors as evidence to the contrary, but healthcare has assumed a reactionary role: if you’re hurt you go to the emergency room and if you’re sick you take pills. This has been a great achievement—the average life span has doubled in the last one hundred years—but we are still on the ground floor when it comes to biotechnology.
Brain computer interfaces, injectable nanotechnology, precision gene editing, and in vitro fertilization will drastically increase the options we have when it comes to our body and mind. We will soon live in a world where it will be possible for children to be selected (as opposed to created) and for the functions of a phone to become the functions of the brain. Whether we will choose to capitalize on the opportunities created by advances in biotechnology will depend on moral and political regulation, but the technology will exist. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.