A revolutionary new idea from Silicon Valley: Technology as if people mattered
- Tom Mahon
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Tom Mahon, Analyst and Author, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, USA
Apple launched the Macintosh in 1984 promising that year would not be like George Orwell’s 1984, with Big Brother watching our every move. Today Apple’s iProducts are the infrastructure of a total, global surveillance state.
After participating in the digital revolution for 40 years, I propose a disruptive new technological idea: produce tools that adapt to people, not the other way around.
Trained as a filmmaker, and with no background in computers or electronics, I backed into writing and editing industrial films for computer companies in the early 1970s.
My clients then told me to stress in my work for them how their big mainframe systems would make air travel safer, health care more affordable, and education more broadly-based.
Of those worthy goals, we have achieved exactly none. Instead, public health, public education, public infrastructure are in crisis mode everywhere.
When I entered the electronics industry 40 years ago nobody intended it to turn out like this. But stuff happens. The earlier goal of a more efficient, less labor-intensive, society that would give us time to develop our better qualities is gone.
Instead, in the digital age innovation means automation. And automation means replacing human inputs with machine inputs. So at the same time digital technology reduces opportunities for people to produce and earn a living, the same technology, in mobile devices, bombards us with marketing messages urging endless consumption. We are so immersed in his culture of cognitive dissonance we don’t see how fatal and self-defeating it is.
After watching this process for 40 years from a front row seat - actually evangelizing it as an industry publicist - I have some thoughts on how we might go forward. To begin, we should stop promoting ‘progress’ until we have some agreement on what we want to progress toward.
We need to recalibrate our frame of reference. Tools exist for us; we’re not here to serve them. Technology should work for our benefit; we shouldn’t have to constantly re-wire our neurons to adapt to the technology.
Let’s aim to get rid of the need for insulting books like ‘Windows for Dummies.’ The users are not dummies. The dummies are companies that produce such inelegant, kludgey products.
I paid my way through college as a ditch digger. And the first rule of ditch digging is, when you get to the bottom of a hole, you stop digging.
I think the current paradigm has bottomed out. We use slave labor, and toxic chemicals, to make devices that are tossed away in six months. And during their operating life, these billions of clean, white micro-devices use the energy equivalent of one lump of coal to send one email. And we send about 100 billion emails a day. So much for the myth of “clean-tech.”
It’s time to move past the current model where we’re continually at the receiving end of tools whose speed and ubiquity are frying our brains and bodies, controlled by an ever-smaller, ever-richer clique of ignoble elites.
So where to from here? We teach basic science in primary school. I suggest we start teaching basic technology at the same time. I don’t mean teaching 10-year-olds how to create websites or program Android apps. They do that better than we do anyhow.
But just as there is something called ‘the scientific method’ – where observation leads to hypothesis then to theory and then to law - I think we should consider the possibility of a ‘technology method.’
Just as science seeks the truth, and art aims to produce the beautiful, let’s say for the sake of argument that technology should pursue the good – both individual and common good, since you can’t have one without the other.
So what would that look like?
First, teach the young to realize that tools are how we impose mind on matter. And when the mind is calm and composed the results can be magnificent, like Chartres cathedral or the original Ford Mustang.
But when the mind is confused or corrupted, we end up with confusing tools and corrupted outcomes: smart weapons to fight dumb wars; big data that cannot yield wise decisions; a new global society based on something as insubstantial as a ‘cloud.’
Second, make clear to students that technology literally means ‘anything of human design.’ So crafting a Baccarat crystal vase is as much a technical accomplishment as Intel designing a new microprocessor. In fact a crystal vase and a microprocessor are essentially the same thing – silicon – fabricated different ways.
Third, recognize that just as technology is the practical application of the discoveries in the sciences, encourage the young to focus their ingenuity on designing, making and using tools that build on the revelations of the sciences in the last century: of a universe that is elegantly interwoven, interconnected and interdependent, from the quantum scale to the cosmic.
A fourth feature of technology is that it’s how we leverage our limited human capabilities. Archimedes said that with a lever long enough and a fulcrum strong enough he could move the earth. (And he could if he had some place in space to stand.)
From ancient times, we used tools to leverage our muscles. And with levers and pulleys and wheels we developed agriculture and built civilization.
Then abut 400 years ago we began to use tools to leverage our senses – telescopes, microscopes, radio and television. And so the scientific revolution.
In the 20th Century, we developed tools to leverage our brains so as to manipulate nature at its most elemental level: electronic, atomic, and genetic.
But along the way, something terrible happened. We began to think we could exercise these capabilities in a value-free context.
Science, in fact, is value free. The laws of nature are as they are; science only uncovers them. No Parliament or Congress can outlaw gravity.
Values only come in when we apply insights of science to practical matters. Nuclear fusion is good; it produces sunlight that makes life possible. But using fusion to explode hydrogen bombs on living beings is not good.
It’s time to initiate a fourth age of technology: leveraging our spirit, our mind. The ancients left a large body of work to help us get started in that area: prayer, meditation, reflection. But because these timeless tools are now wrapped in time-bound, archaic dogmas, many now argue that we’ve outgrown them.
Reintroducing spirituality appropriate for our time will be difficult, given that the very existence of a moral order is open to debate now. I don’t know if there’s a god or not, but I do know there is a by-god moral order of right and wrong, that is woven into the warp and woof of the world as surely as gravity. And we and our leaders and institutions have largely forgotten that.
To re-infuse a sense of right and wrong into our tool use may be the most necessary educational undertaking of our time.
But how do we do it? The process begins with a realization that science in the last century has revealed a stunningly new view of the universe. The major theories of modern science – big bang, evolution, quantum, relativity, and chaos – all reveal a far more elegant universe than ever anticipated.
Einstein said that when he did math – at the level he did math – he could hear God think. English astronomer Sir James Jeans commented, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” If that’s so, who or what’s doing the thinking? Naturalist John Muir discovered that everything he touched in the world is connected to everything else in the universe.
Some even suggest the entire cosmos may be a single wave function, or a hologram, in which each part contains the whole universe, and the entire cosmos is found in each particle.
People spend endless effort now arguing whether God is dead or not. If, by the word ‘God,’ we mean an elderly gentleman with a long white beard sitting on a marble thrown, yea he’s dead. Or more accurately, he never existed except as a mental construct by old men with white beards desperate to maintain their authority. (Speaking as an old man now with a white beard, I can now reveal our little secret: we do not have all the answers.)
But if by ‘god’ – from an old English word for ‘the good’ – we mean the balance and the harmony – the goodness - now seen in every nook and cranny of the universe, then we’re on the way to a thought-breakthrough that may yet pull us back from the brink of catastrophes we’ve brought upon ourselves.
We can no longer misuse the laws of a balanced and harmonious natural order to develop and use tools that encourage and enable mastery of one over the other: of man over nature; men over women; the chosen over the outcast; the powerful over the weak.
It may be too late for our generation to internalize that, but it’s important we teach the young to go beyond the superficial ‘facts’ about new sciences, to see the profound insights these new theories reveal, and how we can manifest them in the tools we make and use.
It is essential for our long-term survival that we act in a composed frame of mind when we pick up and use our tools. All around us we see the agonizing results of failing to do that.
And then use the leverage capability we have used in the past to extend our muscles, senses and brains, to extend that composure such that it produces compassionate ends. In other words: do good; avoid evil. It turns out that the ‘law of love’ is as binding on us as is the law of gravity.
The Christ, The Buddha, The Prophet didn’t have graduate degrees in astrophysics or microbiology, but they, and so many other wise men and women whose names are lost to us, intuitively understood the underlying reality of existence: that each is in all, and all is in each.
Call it karma or divine justice or ‘spooky action at a distance,’ but what we do unto others does come back on us. Because they are us, and we are them. There is no us and them any more.
God - the good - has no hands but ours, and the good has no tools but us. Technology is how God – goodness - is made manifest in the world:
There is an expression in computer science: GIGO. Garbage in; garbage out. But if we can develop a sense of composure and invest that in the tools we make and use, then we increase the chance the outcomes will be compassionate actions. CICO: Composure in; compassion out.
There is no other way open to us and our descendants than to begin teaching the young how to impose calm minds on matter to be manifest as compassionate actions elsewhere. Just as nature itself, the foundation of our tools, is now understood to be in a constant state of coming-to-be even as it is constantly balanced and harmonious at every level, from quantum to cosmic.
*The ideas contained in this paper are expanded on in my e-book, Reconnecting.Calm, available for Kindle and Nook e-readers. More information is at www.reconnectingcalm.com