Unchanging humans


Jason Collins


November 16, 2017

One interesting thread to Don Norman’s excellent The Design of Everyday Things is the idea that while our tools and technologies are subject to constant change, humans stay the same. The fundamental psychology of humans is a relative constant.

Evolutionary change to people is always taking place, but the pace of human evolutionary change is measured in thousands of years. Human cultures change somewhat more rapidly over periods measured in decades or centuries. Microcultures, such as the way by which teenagers differ from adults, can change in a generation. What this means is that although technology is continually introducing new means of doing things, people are resistant to changes in the way they do things.

I feel this is generally the right perspective to think about human interaction with technology. There are certainly biological changes to humans based on their life experience. Take the larger hippocampus of London taxi drivers, increasing height through industrialisation, or the Flynn effect. But the basic building blocks are relatively constant. The humans of today and twenty years ago are close to being the same.

Every time I hear arguments about changing humans (or any discussion of millennials, generation X and the like), I recall the following quote from Bill Bernbach (I think first pointed out to me by Rory Sutherland):

It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.

(If I were making a similar statement, I’d use a shorter time period than “millions”, but I think Bernbach’s point still stands.)

But for how long will this hold? Don Norman again:

For many millennia, even though technology has undergone radical change, people have remained the same. Will this hold true in the future? What happens as we add more and more enhancements inside the human body? People with prosthetic limbs will be faster, stronger, and better runners or sports players than normal players. Implanted hearing devices and artificial lenses and corneas are already in use. Implanted memory and communication devices will mean that some people will have permanently enhanced reality, never lacking for information. Implanted computational devices could enhance thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. People might become cyborgs: part biology, part artificial technology. In turn, machines will become more like people, with neural-like computational abilities and humanlike behavior. Moreover, new developments in biology might add to the list of artificial supplements, with genetic modification of people and biological processors and devices for machines.

I suspect much of this, at least in the short term, will only relate to some humans. The masses will experience these changes with some lag.

(See also my last post on the human-machine mix.)