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ASU Humanities launches 'Top 10 Questions' campaign

September 28, 2012

Are we losing our humanity?

Fans of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" know and love Data, the android whose overarching desire in “life” is to be human – to be able to feel emotions, to experience love.

But Data lacks, and will never have, the one element that makes us truly human – the soul.

In an effort to promote conversation and thinking about humanities, ASU is launching “The Top 10 Questions Humanities Will Answer This Year.” Each month a new question will be posed and answered in different formats by individuals across the globe and from multiple perspectives. 

The first question is: Are we losing our humanity?

Obviously, we cannot physically cut our souls out of our bodies, but might we be “losing” them just the same, and entering the territory of a Data-like person?

Simon Ortiz, Regents’ Professor of English and an Indigenous poet of Acoma Pueblo heritage, says not necessarily.

“We’re not losing our humanity. We as humans, get or act stupid, irresponsible, neglectful, and such, but unfortunately that's part of being human,”
 Ortiz says.

He added, “But at the same time, we're also kind, thoughtful, compassionate and considerate, fortunately – although we get too smart for our own good, too!”

Ortiz commented on recent riots caused by a video seen as anti-Islamic.

“We’ve gone over the edge. Anger is worldwide,” he said. “Religions are needed, but the differences between them get attention. People react to each other based on what their prejudices are. We are protective. But we are, in many ways, similar to each other. Violence is always wrong. Most of the time the result is pain.”

Ortiz also views humanity through the lens of an ethnic minority. “Sometimes we, as ethnic minorities, feel we are the last in line, and we are in the wrong.”

This outlook has to do with the fact of social placement determined by mainstream society and culture, making minorities last in line and in the "wrong" ethnic group, Ortiz explains.

Ortiz was recruited to teach at ASU in 2007 and came to Arizona reluctantly. “I didn’t want to be here,” he said. “Phoenix was such a big city. And I knew some of the history of Arizona. I wanted to be sure I’d be treated fairly.”

Ortiz said he sees promising change at ASU, with more and more minorities enrolled, and with students open to the changes. The key to eliminating that “last in line” feeling for minorities is contact: “between you and me, you and others, faculty and students, and so on. That is really needed in this time.”

Elisabeth Hayes, the Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy, agrees with Ortiz that we are not losing our humanity. Through her work, she has seen that the wave of technological advancements made in computers and gaming draw people together and enhance human characteristics.  

“There is this stereotype of people being glued to a computer screen and losing the ability to communicate. As it turns out, we’ve seen that games are often a hub for social interactions,” Hayes said.

Hayes says that now there is a trend growing in which gamers will get together in online infinity spaces to discuss video games, create fan art, share fan fiction and even play the actual games with one another.

“Games have potential to enhance our ability to relate to each other when you think beyond what is in the box. You are able to create a shared vision and coordinate. They also give us more empathy by immersing us in environments and letting us take on identities that are different from the ones that we have in the so-called real world,” she said.

As for the idea that young adults growing up with this new technology may be losing basic interpersonal skills, Hayes says it is just a misconception brought on by fears of prior generations.

“Games and new technology open up new forms of communication. So I think when people are talking about losing our ability to communicate, they may be talking about deeper fears related to what’s familiar and the uncertainty of what these new forms of electronic communication mean in terms of trust and social bonding because they are new."

While technology has certainly done a lot to advance our society, Anna Barker, director of the Transformative Healthcare Networks, feels that it may be a direct contributor as to why we are losing humanity.

“Our humanity is demonstrated by direct communication with one another. Today we can’t seem to communicate without using some form of technology. The consequences of that are isolation for some people because we aren’t engaging with those in our immediate environment,” she said.

Barker also feels that societal changes are causing the rights of the individual to be valued more so than concerns for the overall population. The rise in popularity of reality television is a perfect of example of this “celebration.”

“The individual wants to be celebrated and have their 15 minutes of fame. It could be at the expense of their family, but it’s become about whatever “I” want not what is good for society. They are being paid to be exploited,” she said.

Barker agrees with Ortiz about worldwide anger causing people to go “over the edge.” In her opinion, society has lost the ability for tolerance. Political issues, specifically, seem to be black and white without room for opposing views in a free forum exchange of ideas – a red flag that something is wrong with society.  

“There is really no esprit de corps when dealing with it comes to dealing with people. When they disagree with them, they disagree violently,” she said.

So after looking at both sides of the coin, are we losing our humanity? Or, are we simply redefining what it means to be human and how we communicate? Let us know your thoughts by joining the conversation on or

Look for next month’s question: How does technology affect what it means to be human?

Written by Judith Smith and Natasha Karaczan