I’ve pointed out in earlier essays how the dense network that we humans have constructed over ages — a contrivance I’ve come to call the Networked Human Exoskeleton (NHE) — has conferred on our species immense, almost unfathomable intellectual, technological and even moral progress.
A Brief Re-Introduction to NHE
First, a brief refresher course on the NHE. I believe that all of human progress can be attributed to a dense network, the first elements of which were put in place eons ago, as our distant ancestors began employing language. This network is comprised of all manner of things: language, writing, technology, moral and ethical teachings, art and memes, to name only a few. All of these elements are fused within this network, one that has become denser and more nuanced with the passage of time.
We ascribe human progress to the accomplishments of great men and women throughout history, but this is only partly the case. Whether they happen to be political leaders, moral sages, scientists or philosophers, all of these individuals have been integrally influenced by the elements of this network, the NHE. They function as nodes within a vast network — singular and important ones, to be sure, but nodes nonetheless.
In fact, I’ve chosen the term exoskeleton to underscore the immense scope and influence of this contrivance and the individual’s sheer smallness in the face of it. The NHE is more than simply a network: It not only drives human progress but also protects and sustains us. We, in a manner of speaking, are ensconced within our exoskeleton. We are integrally linked to it and it is impossible to step out of it. In fact, our species would face rapid extinction if we somehow managed to separate ourselves from it.
Shifts in Binding
Yet, it’s important to underscore that our exoskeleton is not only affected by external environmental threats but also shifts within its own network binding. These shifts can be far-reaching and can pose significant challenges to humans as they adjust to them.
Indeed, one could argue that we are still adjusting to the disruption to network binding caused by the advent of the printing press some 500 years ago. The higher levels of literacy that followed this technological advance contributed to all manner of social forces, notably, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which ultimately led to the ideology that underpins the culture of the West: liberal democracy.
One of the hallmarks of democratic liberalism is the dizzying array of choices it imposes on each inhabitant of advanced societies, even regarding subjects that were once considered sacrosanct and not subject to discussion or debate.
Indeed, our exoskeleton has expanded to the degree that we are free to reject conventional explanations of the transcendent – to work out our own personal view of transcendence or, for that matter, to reject all notions of transcendence.
As this emerging sense of choice expands, older, more conventional forms of faith recede. Conventional faith once comprised a critical component of our exoskeleton. But within the last half millennium, dramatic shifts within the binding of our exoskeleton have essentially worked to outstrip the ability of older traditions to maintain compelling narratives among growing numbers of people.
The Vast Expansion of the Exoskeleton
There is another factor that cannot be ignored. The freedoms we enjoy, particularly, the freedom to create our own personal ethos, is an outgrowth of the vastly extended, highly specialized society that we have managed to create through our increasingly complex and nuanced exoskeleton. Such freedom would have been unimaginable only a few centuries ago.
It is also worth considering within the wider historical context. How much freedom do we have within this exoskeleton — really? It has greatly optimized our range of personal choices, yes, but to what degree has it expanded our personal autonomy? These are complicated questions that will have to be taken up at a later date.
Freedom and choice are outgrowths of shifts within our network. Moreover, both are highly relative terms within the perspective of the human exoskeleton. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of freedom within a temporal sense, but questions of human choice and autonomy have been explored within considerably wider contexts. Moreover these two concepts have been subject to dramatic revisions across eons.
There is another critical issue to consider: Until the last several decades, Western concepts of freedom and choice had been closely integrated with and tempered by other binding within our network, namely a system of ethics and morality heavily influenced in the West by orthodox Christian teaching.
These connections will adhere, at least, to some degree, for the foreseeable future, but this binding is coming under increasing threat. And if our history has taught us one thing, it’s that we have every reason to heed the lessons of the past and to search for ways to weave the older binding of our network into emerging elements. In fact, we ignore this older binding at our own peril.
Dizzying Arrays of Choices
We must also understand that our dizzying arrays of choices are a direct byproduct of the extended society that has emerged from our exoskeleton. To express it another way, we are able to exercise some degree of individual autonomy only because our exoskeleton has grown so large, so complex and so extended. Western monarchs were forced to undertake sweeping institutional changes that led to a parliamentary government as well as the civil liberties that we take wantonly for granted in the 21st century.
To put it another way, we owe the immense size and complexity of our network, our exoskeleton, an immense debt, though the scope and density of this exoskeleton present a new set of unique and, in the view of many, insurmountable challenges.
Much of this could be destroyed following some environmental apocalypse or technological calamity in which much of our scaffolding, particularly our technological scaffolding, was eliminated.
Following such a calamity, we no longer could take much of our autonomy for granted. We would have to deal with new systems of morality and ethics imposed by the new scaffolding that emerges.