To Rehumanize Technology: First, Become Technology Literate
- Tom Mahon
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Tom Mahon, Scientist and Author, San Francisco, USA
We’ve arranged a global civilization of which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces…
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1995)
Tho I lacked any formal education in engineering, I backed into a temporary job writing about electronic engineering and computer science 40 years ago. And I’ve continued writing about those areas ever since, as publicist, journalist, novelist, playwright and essayist, mostly in Silicon Valley.
I’ve had a unique opportunity to observe the digital revolution from ground zero, since the introduction of the microprocessor. I have some observations to share.
I caught the enthusiasm of my first clients in the early ‘70s that their big computers would make for safer air travel, more affordable health care, and more effective education. The very areas that are the most troubled today.
My enthusiasm began to wane about 20 years ago as I saw the cube-land workplace of the Information Revolution becoming as soul-destroying, as manual labor had been body-ravaging in the Industrial Revolution.
So I began speaking and writing widely about the need to stay human in a high-tech world. But advice about staying composed in a stressful workplace seems quaint now in the face of a much more immediate and disturbing situation: the unceasing surveillance of our lives by a global regime of private and public interests tracking our every mood and move, using the mobile devices we can’t seem to live without.
The Washington Post reported in 2010 that every day in the U.S., the National Security Agency intercepts and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of communications. Within five years, domestic drones – some armed - will see our every move. And we’ll soon have the “Internet of Things” where every thing we own – refrigerator, stove, shoes – will have an IP address and always be on-line, giving Wal-Mart and the National Security Agency total information about your life.
But while the global regime knows everything we do, we’re not allowed to know anything they do. Consider the legal and public relations campaigns against Julian Assange, charged with leaking documents that reveal how botched our wars are.
So this is the New Feudalism, where Intellectual Property, held in fewer and fewer hands, is the basis of power, just as real property – land - was the basis of wealth and power a thousand years ago. Ironic, given its libertarian leanings, that Silicon Valley has enabled a total surveillance police state.
We’re at a major juncture in our history: either the powerful continue to monitor and control our every move, distracting us with constant exposure to violence and salaciousness in movies, television, songs, games and the Internet, as we sink into a Medieval state of ignorance and superstition.
Or, ‘we, the people’ take it upon ourselves to move beyond data processing, information processing and knowledge processing to achieve wisdom processing. That is, to harmonize self-knowledge with compassionate action.
I think our situation now is like that facing Jesus of Nazareth back then. By that, I mean the actual historical figure, a first century itinerant rabbi trodding a land under occupation by a Roman regime that crucified the men, raped the women, enslaved the children, imposed heavy taxes, and cheated on top of that.
What do we do, he asked. Cooperate with the Romans to keep our estates like the Sadducees; sink into an obsessive legalism like the Pharisees; head to the wilderness like the Essenes; or take up crude weapons against Roman steel like the Zealots?
None of these, he said. There is another way. Create an alternative community, and in the face of corruption and brute force practice equanimity and empathy. "Behold, I send you as sheep among wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16). Know lies when you hear them, and don’t succumb to them. Give no provocation or offense, but neither be a toady or a minion. Maintain your integrity, but not boastfully. Have a firm foundation, but be fleet of foot. There are other steps to take later, but they must be predicated on these foundations.
The current regime will implode, and probably sooner rather than later. It is suffocating on its own greed, gain and self-adoration. Consider how many of our most trusted traditional institutions have lost all moral authority. Gandhi was right: “No evil regime has ever endured. Think about that.” It’s as if evil carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.
So we must work actively and with some urgency to decouple ourselves – individually and communally; senior citizens and newborns - from a civilization that’s dying before our eyes. The regime’s insistence on infinite consumption of finite resources is unsustainable, and getting more so by the year.
We are like the tiny mammals scurrying around defensively at the feet of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. The big lizards ruled the world. But when there was a major disruption in the environment - an asteroid’s debris blocking the sun - the reign of the giants ended in only 18 months. They’d become too big and too dumb to survive a changing world. And their sudden disappearance opened the way for our vulnerable mammal ancestors to take over since then.
The way out of our current crisis and impending catastrophe is to re-imagine technology from the ground up, and act on that revised understanding.
Our tools must serve us again, and not demand that we continually restructure our lives to keep up with them. We must stop being our tools’ tools. It’s time to put aside our childish, gee-whiz obsession with ever-accelerating coolness, or bankrupting ourselves building ‘smart’ weapons. And instead, assume the maturity to reconnect our silicon civilization with two golden nuggets from antiquity: the golden mean (moderation, composure) and the golden rule (kindness, compassion).
We live at the receiving end of the technology revolution. Moore’s Law demands that we double the pace of our lives every year or so to keep up with advances in semiconductor manufacturing. But that is Moore’s Law. It is not God’s law. If God wanted that, he’d have made a digital universe, not an analog universe.
The ancients had a different appreciation of science and technology. For them, science (knowledge) was the path to truth. And technology was the means to make beautiful things and do good works. The Classical Age saw science and technology as the means to beauty, truth and goodness; we’ve made them ends in themselves. We have to stop that, and rethink the entire notion of tool-making and tool-using.
As a first step to rethinking our technology, and re-introducing composure and compassion into the digital age, we must begin an aggressive effort to teach technology literacy, as Carl Sagan urged. That is, to raise awareness of what tools are - how they shape us as much as we shape them - so we can better design and use them to our human benefit. We talk of ‘progress,’ but never discuss what we are progressing towards. Let’s set the goal – a just and civil society – then design tools to get there.
Here’s the starting point in achieving ‘technology literacy.’ All technology, all tools, are based on the principal of leverage – getting maximum results with minimal effort. Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum strong enough and I could lift the world.” And he could, if he had somewhere to set the fulcrum.
Tools are how we impose mind on matter. If the mind is muddled, so is the product.
The engineering profession has done wonders maximizing leverage of our muscles, senses and brains. But little attention is paid to social and moral outcomes; what happens at the other side of the fulcrum. So we begin our study with some history.
Review three waves of technical development that increased human leveraging ability through history: first our muscles (lever, screw, wheel…), then our senses (telescope, microscope, radio and television), and finally our brains (microprocessors).
Fourth wave of leverage: inner space
Now there’s an evident desire for a fourth wave of technology. Or, rather, a return to the ancient technologies that leverage the inner environment, our soul: that is, the search for the Kingdom of God, or nirvana, or grace, satori, bliss or the awakened mind. So how do we get from here, to where we want to be? The golden nuggets.
The Golden Mean: Moderation; Composure; Know Thyself
The ancient Greeks realized the key to composure is to “Know Thyself.” And achieving self-knowledge requires a calm and focused mind. But that’s hard to achieve when we clock our work lives in nanoseconds, and in our personal time immerse ourselves in an endless stream of graphic violence — called entertainment—that holds our attention until the ads excite greed and envy.
Electronic engineers focus on a signal-to-noise ratio, where products put out a strong signal of content, with minimal interfering “noise,” or static. Likewise, it’s good to engineer some time each day or week in our own lives, to pause and reflect on the signal of meaning in our lives: filter out the noise, and home in on the authentic. The S:N ratio is another way of expressing the Golden Mean; balancing between too-much and too-little, just like Goldilocks.
The Golden Rule: Kindness, Compassion
There’s also the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated, with kindness and compassion. There is so much good work needing to be done to remediate the ravages of our wasteful ways—teaching, healing, feeding, mending—and we have so many superb tools now to do the work.
In view of that, it’s a scandal there is so much unemployment. And it will get worse as automation chews its way up the skill chain. In 20 years brain surgery may be done by nanobots and a lab tech halfway around the world, making minimum wage.
Overview of how natural science in the last century has given us theories (big bang, evolution, quantum, relativity and chaos) that reveal undiscovered balance and harmony in the universe; a holographic cosmos. Each is found in all; all found in each.
Noticing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things is no longer for mystics or poets alone, but also for physicists now. Involvement in the web of existence is not an optional activity,
It’s up to every thoughtful person to begin to “in-form” the information technology at his/her disposal. To put the soul back into the new machines. Be mindful of, and teach others to be mindful of, the technology around you. And consider: how much do we really need; how much can we do without: how can we tell the difference? Are we prepared if the grid or the cloud or the global telecom system suddenly went down, as it could? How can we leverage the tools that are by us, and within us, and around us, and through us, to achieve composure and practice compassion?
We can employ more people today remediating and removing the toxins the early model left us: poisoned water, air, soil, cities and souls. And recasting archaic patterns and institutions from the divisive wedge model of our traditions, us vs. them, to ones that reflect the balance and harmony in the universe that the sciences now reveal.
Once we learned from nature, as we understood nature at the time: kill or be killed. In reaction, we developed technology to master nature and subdue others who threaten our group. That worldview has run its course. Now we see nature to be far more balanced and interconnected that we ever imagined. We must learn to fashion our tools, our politics, economics, culture around those newly discovered realities.
I’ve recently published an e-book that goes into much more detail on this subject, available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Google Books, called Reconnecting.calm: Finding common ground for science, technology and faith. There is more information at my website: www.reconnectingcalm.com. There you will also find resources showing what others are doing globally on these issues, as well as links to alternative sources for staying on-line without giving up your life to surveillance.
I’ll conclude with a benediction: With minds and hearts, let us pray for peace. And with our tools and new technologies, let us work for justice. And so it shall be.