Techno-social engineering: turning humans into machines

To click, or not to click, has this ever been a question? When we surf the Internet and see an “I agree” button, how many of us actually think before clicking it? In their book Re-engineering Humanity, Frischmann and Selinger mention this example as one of the many aspects of what they call techno-social engineering.

Techno-social engineering has huge effects on humans and can eventually cause them to act like simple machines, deprived of autonomy and free will. Through gradual small changes that seem rational on their own, society will be pushed down a slippery slope that leads to the dehumanization of its people.

This idea makes us pose some questions: When and how do humans become programmable? Can they be programmed and engineered to become incapable of thinking? What are the consequences of the techno-social environments on the human qualities that distinguish us from machines?

Are humans programmable?

Before diving into the consequences of programming humans, we should explore whether humans are programmable in the first place. In fact, our identity is largely determined by both nature and nurture. Our genes can influence who we are and what we do, especially when we experience the needed triggers in our environment. For example, people who have the warrior gene (MAOA) have a higher tendency to commit violence if they are exposed to the necessary environmental factors. Researchers found that the warrior gene alone cannot create criminals, but it increases the chance of committing violent acts in certain environments.

Another example is sexual orientation. Some researchers suggest that it is determined by a combination of biological factors and the environment in early childhood. Therefore, humans have always been programmable through both nature (biology and genes) and nurture (the environment they live in). Due to that, the new techno-social environments can also play a role in programming humans and determining their future behavior.

How do techno-social environments program humans?

In order to understand how humans can be programmed by their environments, we need to take a look at the way they make their decisions. According to Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,” we have two distinct modes of decision making: System 1 which is instantaneous, driven by instinct and prior learning; and System 2 which is slower, driven by deliberation and logic. When we experience a certain stimulus repetitively, it allows us to learn the appropriate behavior and therefore use system 1 to react to it. As long as the stimulus is the same and occurs in the same context, there will be no need to reflect on it and use system 2. 

This explains the fact that in certain environments, humans can act in a predictable manner and look like simple machines. They become merely reflex agents that do not actively think before responding to some stimuli. One example of such environments is a call center. Sometimes a phone operator can be mistaken to be a computer because of the constraining and heavily scripted environment. The operator has to answer hundreds of calls daily, and a lot of them are very similar and become repetitive. Therefore the phone operator starts to respond using system 1 and his behavior becomes predictable and scripted. 

The consequences of programming humans

We should be more concerned in the larger scale implications of techno-social engineering. For example, in electronic contracts, most people nowadays accept the terms and privacy policies every time without even reading what they’re accepting. This develops in humans a common response to click “I agree” whenever they are presented with an electronic contract. It also expands from normal websites to many other things like mobile apps, smart TVs and smart electronic appliances. 

When humans start to employ system 1 to make decisions about things that would’ve otherwise required the intervention of system 2, they start becoming more predictable and therefore more exploitable. If the techno-social environment we live in becomes so predictable, all our actions will be processed by system 1. This leaves us deprived of one of the most important elements that makes us human: reflecting on our actions and employing our logic and emotions to make certain decisions. 

Nonetheless, there is a really important distinction that should be made. We do not become incapable of thinking under such environments, we only employ a different process of decision making. When needed, system 2 will always intervene if something is out of the ordinary. Therefore, techno-social environments can program us to change our decision making process but cannot turn us into simple machines that are totally incapable of thinking.

Techno-social engineering and human relationships

In addition to changing the way we make our decisions, techno-social environments can have bad effects on our human relationships. In the movie Her and in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, people can become willing to replace their interaction with real humans by some sort of artificial intelligence. A couple of years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. But gradually face to face meetings were replaced by phone calls, which were later replaced by text messages. This process opened the door for AI systems to appear like humans when texting someone else. What was in the past impossible is now acceptable because of the accumulation of small actions we thought were rational and beneficial. 

Moreover, people are very ready and willing to smudge over the difference between a computer and a human being in order to get some cheap bliss. AI systems can prove to deliver emotions or services tailored to meet any human’s needs based on the data collected about them by the surveillance systems. A very simple example of this is movie recommendations. Who would you ask to recommend a movie or TV show that suits your taste? In the past, the answer would’ve been “my friends, family members or colleagues”. But now that we have Netflix and similar services, we’re more than happy to make them a replacement because their recommendations are usually a better fit for our taste.  

Once the pieces of the techno-social environment are put together, from the small nudges to the large amount of data collected about everyone, humans become victims of a system that can and will at some point replace their human qualities by some fake rewards and deprive them from the beauty of real human interactions. When machines become an acceptable replacement for people, we can conclude that these people lost the qualities that once made them special and unique humans.

Final words

We now have the responsibility to make a choice. We need to figure out who we are, find what makes us human, and preserve it. The techno-social engineering is still in its very early phases, so we still have a choice to decide what future we want to build. Is it a future where cheap bliss is our one and only goal, or is it a future where happiness and satisfaction come from hard work and real human interactions?

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