A Paper by Tom Mahon submitted for the Rhodes Forum Scientific Marathon - 2014
We’ve become the tools of our tools and the fault – and the solution – lies not in our tools, but in ourselves.
For all the stunning achievements of science and technology in the last 400 years, there has been a blind spot at the center of both enterprises: the absence of an overarching vision that ties everything together, or the recognition that, in fact, everything is indeed connected.
The sheer amount of information now makes it impossible for any single person to grasp the whole of knowledge, as Leonardo da Vinci once could. As a result, scientists and technologists become buried in silos of information with little or no vision of what is upstream or downstream of their work.
Worse yet, it would be the end of a scientist or engineer’s academic or professional career if s/he were to suggest that these various streams of knowledge converge in what Isaac Newton once called ‘the great ocean of truth that lay all undiscovered before me.’
So we have come to the point where science and technology have provided benefits unimaginable even 20 years ago, yet they have also brought us to the possible collapse of civilization itself through total war, environmental destruction, and unbearable stress on individuals that becomes manifest in aggression and hostility.
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s still-accurate 1965 prediction of technical advances leaves one in awe of our quantitative abilities. But little thought is given in the technology field to addressing qualitative advances: promoting justice, civility and mercy in society. In fact, the idea that technology might even have anything to contribute in these areas seems strange.
It is time (indeed, past time) to incorporate humane values into our tool-use, and to do that we need an entirely new way of thinking about technology. (And science, too, and for that I refer the reader to The Nature Institute (natureinstitute.org)
Science concerns itself with discovering and understanding the laws of nature. Technology is the application of those natural forces to matters of daily life: producing food, clothing, shelter; advancing transportation and communications; furthering education; promoting the healing arts…
In the Classical age, “technology” covered nearly everything of human design and making, including dance, poetry and other ‘artistic’ activities.
In view of technology’s overwhelming impact on everyone’s lives now – especially digital technology - it’s strange we don’t teach technology literacy as a required general course: what tools are, and how they shape us as much as we design them.
We teach science literacy even in primary school, so children learn something about gravity and cells and planets in order to gain a basic understanding of how nature works.
But learning how to “work” nature – technical literacy - is usually reserved for specialists and professionals.
Of course there are programs that teach children how to develop apps or to program in various languages, but I’ve found no general courses that introduce students to the subject of technology itself, or show them how they can use the basic principle of all technology – leverage - to affect the world around them.
The purpose of all tools – whether pencil or supercomputer; whether used by humans or other animals - is to leverage limited abilities to accomplish ever-greater results: shovels extend our muscles; the Hubble telescope our eyes; a stick covered with a sweetener lets chimps capture ants for dinner.
This is the ultimate goal of all tools: to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. Archimedes said, “With a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, I can lift the world.” And he could if he had a place in space on which to rest the fulcrum.
In this “age of technology” we have gotten very good at leveraging our muscles, senses and brains. But we’re not doing as well leveraging our yearning for peace of mind or a just social order.
There’s also a growing resignation that we must adapt to our tools now, instead of the tools adapting to us. That our lives are increasingly being leveraged by our tools, which in turn are controlled by an ever-diminishing number of power centers.
I’ve spent 40 years at ground zero of the electronics revolution as an industry publicist/evangelist, most of that time in Silicon Valley. I’m also the author of two published books about the place. I am very aware of the many benefits of electronic, digital technology.
I did the evangelizing because I believed the vision of my first clients in the 1970s, that computers would ultimately provide more affordable health care, safer air travel, and better schools. Yet it’s those very services that are now in trouble.
Increasingly it seems that for all the evident benefits – and there are many – the tools have taken over the toolmakers.
• Complex algorithms, beyond human understanding, replace even the most high-valued jobs, including the jobs of algorithm writers whose “artificially” intelligent systems will soon program their own next-generation devices;
• Yet even as jobs and incomes disappear, mobile devices bombard us with “entertaining” images of violence and salaciousness, to hold our attention until the ads appear urging endless consumption of finite resources;
• What jobs do remain demand that we work at superhuman speed to keep up with superfast silicon systems;
• Opaque institutions demand that our lives be transparent to them, even as hackers can rob us of our very identities;
• A coterie of enormously wealthy technorati plan to upload themselves into silicon systems to achieve immortality, leaving the majority of humanity to make do the best it can with increasing populations and decreasing resources;
• And nowhere does this model of fewer and fewer highly-rewarded knowledge workers having greater and greater power than in the field of genetic engineering where life itself can be shaped at the molecular level;
• So now technologists can manipulate the basic building blocks of existence (the atom), intelligence (the electron/bit), life (the gene), and awareness (the synapse) with no other generally accepted guideline than the profit motive. We build walls around knowledge (IP or Intellectual Property protection) to monetize those ideas with a successful IPO (Initial Public Stock Offering). We are drowning in information, and starved for meaning and significance.
We have become so enchanted by our tools that they are now ends in themselves, so we often forget tools are only means to ends. I suggest that the proper end of technology—in fact, the proper end of all human enterprise—is to achieve happiness, in the truest sense of that word. And the wisest men and women in history agree the path to true happiness is living a life of moderation (“the golden mean”) and empathy (“the golden rule”). That is, developing composure and serenity within oneself, and sharing that with all others in acts of kindness.
And if technology is the application of the forces of nature, discovered by science, to issues of daily life - providing food, clothing, shelter and other necessities and conveniences - we must learn to incorporate the astonishing insights revealed by the natural sciences in the past century into our tool use: that at every level from the quantum to the cosmic the universe is arranged with a stunning coherence, elegance and balance never imagined before.
We must, therefore, learn now to incorporate the harmony revealed by the sciences into the tools we make and use in order to manifest that harmony in the institutions and infrastructures we build and maintain.
To the extent current technology already does that, it’s a blessing. But when electronic digital technology requires us to double the pace of our lives every 12-18 months, to keep up with our tools, then we achieve neither composure nor compassion.
It is time to re-think the entire technology enterprise, to use our tools to live a life of moderation between the frivolous (microprocessor-enabled “smart sneakers”) and the deadly (“smart weapons”), and so build communities of concern, compassion and connection.
Otherwise, when greed, gain and self-aggrandizement are the inputs, then waste, rapacity and rage are the outputs, ravaging the environmental, communal and personal spheres.
And even as we are increasingly drawn into the dark side of the digital ecosystem, it’s becoming obvious that extrication is increasingly difficult.
So where do we go from here?
Recall I said above that that the purpose of tools is to leverage our limited human abilities in order to accomplish ever-greater results.
Tools developed in three phases over history. From early on, they leveraged our muscles. With the six simple tools of antiquity - the lever, pulley, screw, wheel, inclined plane, and wedge - our ancestors created civilizations: clearing fields, draining swamps, and building temples and towers for the gods they imagined and the powerful who controlled them.
Then about 400 years ago, our ancestors began to develop tools to extend the senses: first, the telescope and microscope, and later the radio and television, allowing them to see far out, deep down, and long ago.
Beginning in the early 20th Century, we developed tools to extend our brains: computers, the Internet, smart devices, the ‘Cloud.’
But, seldom mentioned in annals of technology, even as our ancestors developed tools to leverage their muscles, senses and brains, they also developed tools to leverage their soul, or atman, or psyche, so as to be composed within themselves, and thus try to establish just and civil societies. Though generally overlooked today, prayer, meditation, chi gong, yoga, ethical standards, communal worship are in fact spiritual technologies. And in the past century, revolutions in transportation and communication have enabled the leveraging of spiritual technologies profoundly.
With soul-tools, especially non-violent resistance, Gandhi and his followers brought down the British raj; Dr. King and his followers brought an end to the Jim Crow laws in America; Mandela, de Klerk, et. al. ended apartheid in South Africa; and Lech Walesa, Karol Wojtyła and their supporters brought down the Iron Curtain. And these world-changing events were accomplished with minimal violence.
But Gandhi and others showed it is not enough to end wicked regimes. There must be livable alternatives.
Beyond taking a stand against the leveraging of waste and rage, we need to incorporate the two universal pillars of wisdom - composure and compassion - into our use of tools.
How? First, whenever you use a tool – whether a shovel, a pencil, or a supercomputer – do so in a composed frame of mind. That isn’t possible most of the time, especially in work situations, but it is something to be aware of and to strive for.
Then, to the extent possible, consider the outcomes at the other end of the leveraging process. When you apply energy to any tool, the results are usually much greater than the inputs. That is the whole purpose of leverage and of tools. Strive therefore so that the outcomes manifest kindness, or at a minimum cause no pain and do no evil.
When jangledness of mind is present at the inputs, the outcomes will be jangled and hurtful. And people at the receiving end are then very likely to transfer the resulting anger and pain into their own tool use.
And so the cycle of violence propagates and increases with each spin of the wheel. Gandhi and others showed that the pernicious cycle could only be broken when we are composed in our tool use.
So to the extent possible, be mindful of that when you put energy into a tool. And strive for outcomes that manifest kindness and compassion, even if you never see those results.
This model – of composed and mindful inputs leveraged to produce kind and compassionate outcomes – is admittedly not possible for most people much of the time. And by itself it is not a panacea for the all the environmental, communal and personal despoliation that has resulted from tool use run amok. We have a long, hard slog ahead of us. But every individual effort in that direction, however small, does represent a step in reconnecting technical capability with social and moral responsibility. And acknowledging that science without conscience is inappropriate.
There is a second process we can initiate when the rush and disruptions of the digital revolution wear us down. Find others who share your concerns, your situation, your pressures, and then meet and talk with them. Recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, among many others, are good examples of how this works: start holding regular meetings, in confidence and in a safe place and with like-minded people, that provide a chance to express how you are dealing - or not dealing - with stress and pressures brought by technologies in your own lives: work, family, social. Sharing concerns with others similarly afflicted is a first step in treating them.
From such meetings at the local level, a new economy of sharing, bartering and promoting the common good may emerge creating meaningful work, countering the current system where one’s gain is another’s loss.
Individual efforts to be composed when using tools, so as to leverage kindness in the outcomes, can in turn be leveraged by joining with others – locally and globally - to share, inspire and protect.
These actions alone do not represent the beginning of the end of the negative consequences of the technology revolution. But they may be the end of the beginning – of the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness brought about by the growing awareness that we are now the tools of our tools.
If we had the ingenuity to invent the devices that increasingly control us, we also have the ingenuity to reclaim our rightful ownership of our tools, so that humane inputs will secure more just, healthy and benevolent outputs.
With our mind and heart, let us pray for peace. And with our tools and new technologies let us work for justice.