Technology Is Threatening Our Species’ Survival
The painful lessons of social media show why we need to approach our A.I. future with more care
Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure wisdom wins.
— Stephen Hawking, 2018
As an evolutionary anthropologist, I have spent my career working to understand the mechanisms of human relationships and the role they play in our daily lives. Our sociability sits at the very center of what it means to be human; I have witnessed that as I have studied the love between parents and children, the sense of belonging that bonds soccer fans, or the camaraderie of an army unit.
But the emergence of social media, and more recently artificial intelligence, continues to have a profound impact on how our social relationships function, and the essential benefits we derive from them.
After water, food, and shelter, the single most powerful influence on our health and happiness is the strength of our social connections. Our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues underpin our emotional lives through a complex set of neurological, psychological, genetic, and behavioral adaptations. A support network that is weak or dysfunctional can have profound negative consequences on our mental and physical health, and can even influence children’s future mental health if they experience trauma during key stages of development.
Our personal social network — to reclaim the sociological term hijacked by Mark Zuckerberg — averages around 150 people, arranged in a series of concentric circles around us. Those closest to us are at the very center; our best friend, lover, children, or parents. Beyond this, the circles increase outwards to the edge of our network of acquaintances. The size of our network is constrained by how much time we dedicate to maintaining our relationships, and by the extent of our brain’s ability to keep track of who owes us a favor, who is challenging our trust, or who needs a bit of attention.