The eminent 20th century German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, was perhaps best known for his short treatise, I-Thou. It amplified the study of dialogic relationships, designating more transactional, functional, objectified, and mundane bonds as I-It, and deeper, more mutual, immersive, inter-subjective connections as I-Thou. Though directed toward an explication of our relationship with the divine, Buber offers the fascinating and counterintuitive insight that very often humans forge I-It bonds with others (as in daily life) and I-Thou bonds with inanimate objects (as in expert musicianship). It is the quality of relationship that matters more than the parties to it.
Buber’s taxonomy came to mind often as I encountered Elyakim Kislev’s new work, Relationship 5.0. Kislev, an academic and administrator at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, brings his polymathic scholarship to the challenge of emerging technologies, taking us on a brief yet comprehensive survey of human civilization. More specifically, he traces the evolution of technology and its impact on society and human relationships.
His objective is to demonstrate that the current state of these technologies, and their imprint on the nature of love, friendship, and mutual obligation, is as much a “natural” outgrowth of existing trajectories as it is a rupture that might warrant the most angst-ridden of our science fiction-based fears. And like the best of science fiction, Kislev asserts that such a discussion is more about the quality of being human than the perils of the cybersphere.
Kislev roots his title of Relationship 5.0 in a visionary categorization:
The term ‘Society 5.0’ was coined in 2016 by the Japanese government to describe the next stage of human development, in which significant advances in robotics, biotech, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber-physical systems, and nanotech all combine to revolutionize the ways we live. The main difference this time can be defined by moving from technologies used as tools controlling human surroundings and work to technologies that are our ecosystem in and of themselves.
Kislev’s survey of the nexus between economics, technology, and society is well trod ground for those who have read this popular genre and its celebrity purveyors, Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari. Yet his breezy, anecdote-laden style, accented with statistical documentation, provides a relevant context for later more prescient and speculative assertions. He sees the socio-techno symbiosis emerging from revolutions in the cognitive, sensorial, and physical spheres. Yet in dissecting the essence of the human, particularly the ever-elusive realm of emotions, Kislev contends that the “magical” and ineffable elements that make us human can actually be broken down into constituent, and thus replicable elements. We are left with the trite yet essential philosophical query as to whether human experience, let alone consciousness, is truly something greater than the sum of its parts.
Kislev builds upon Kurzweil’s notion of the “singularity”, comforting us with an assurance that we need not reject such advancements out of our innate fear of the unknown. Rather, we will eventually accept and integrate them into our lives as readily as we’ve adjusted to the exponentially accelerating rate of technological innovations up to the present. Whether an apologetic for the coming realization of Big Brother, an elevation of the corporatization of Big Tech into an enterprise nobler than profiteering, or a truly revelatory prophecy of the new frontier that lies before us, Kislev’s erudition, clarity of exposition, and compelling style are a worthy entry in the emerging literature of our ever-expected futurism of the Jetsons, flying cars, and metaworlds. Once the all-important ethics concerning these technologies catches up with their ubiquity, perhaps Buber’s philosophy will need a concomitant updating to include I-Is?