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Technological citizenship or What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?

Over the last few decades, technological developments have not been confined to the material world but human beings have become the object of study and technological intervention, to the extent that we have become engineering projects ourselves. While attempts at installing such projects were not uncommon in the past, for example in the field of eugenics, some commentators have argued that the pace at which human enhancement technologies are currently developed requires what is called “technological citizenship”. An important trigger for this development is NBIC convergence, meaning “a steadily more profound interaction between the natural sciences (nano and info) and the life sciences (bio and cogno)”.

This interaction leads to two trends. First, “biology becomes technology” in that new knowledge acquired in the natural sciences stimulates life sciences such as genetics, medicine and neuroscience. FCI already touched on some of the implications of for instance surrogacy on citizenship. At the same time, however, “technology becomes biology” because scientists have been trying to simulate the workings of the brain in hardware and software. Referring to the large European Human Brain Project, the authors note that “engineers increasingly attempt to build qualities typical of living creatures, such as self-healing, reproduction, and intelligence, into technology”.

The combined effect of these two trends is that humans and technology are increasingly merging with each other, leading to the question “What does it mean to be human in the 21st century”? The answer to this question is not only to be found by looking at the traditional invasive medical technologies that work inside the human body, but increasingly by studying “technologies outside the body that have an impact on people’s physical, mental, and social achievements”. There are currently numerous technologies, including facial and emotion recognition, that are designed to influence human behaviour in matters such as diet, social relations or money, raising questions about privacy, autonomy as well as bodily and mental integrity.

While technology is often presented as progressive and can lead to developing new competences (“reskilling”), other competences may in fact be reduced (“deskilling”), for example in certain fields of human interaction. As these changes in the human condition transcend the level of the individual, they directly affect collective citizenship. Indeed, while traditional questions asked whether human enhancement is an individual right, the application of current human enhancement technology is currently so much driven by society (e.g. for economic or military motives) that the issue of individual free choice is complicated to such a level that we may wonder whether future citizens are still “self-made men” or rather “designed by others”.

As NBIC technologies are about to radically alter the world, the classic and confined debate on human enhancement as a way to accomplish individual goals needs to be broadened. In fact, as technology, through the creation of “enhanced” humans, may abolish the current human individual altogether, this might no longer be the appropriate lens through which to study technology. As technology appears to present a head-on attack on the “natural” human and therefore indirectly democracy, the authors feel the crucial question to address is: “how can we develop and implement human enhancement technology in a societally responsible way?”. With technological barriers being removed at an incredible pace, the need for a public discussion on the values we want technology to achieve grows at an equal speed. The fact that something is technologically possible does not mean it is desirable. History has shown that if decisions are left to the developers of technology, often on the basis arguments that economical, political and moral arguments should not interfere with scientific progress, as we have seen in the context of outer space law, this may have catastrophic consequences.

Part of the answer to this conundrum may be found in technological citizenship, defined as “the collection of rights and duties that makes it possible for citizens to profit from the blessing of technology and protects them against attendant risks”. While technological citizenship covers many dimensions, importantly it is meant to emancipate the regular citizen in relation to the experts and developers of technology through education – in particular by focusing on digital literacy. What this emancipation through digital literacy could look like is something we will look at in a future episode.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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