Analog, Adieu.

Welcome to the digital lobster trap. Part Two

~Tom Mahon~

If I seem down on the digital revolution, it’s not without recognizing its many advantages. I was an aspiring novelist in the 1970s, before word processing, and each new draft meant retyping the entire 400-page manuscript, not just tweaking some pages.

But up to now, each person’s participation in the revolution has been voluntary. I don’t have to use the Internet. I can drive over to the library to find out who the 18th President was. (A hint: Ulysses S. Grant.)

But since most workplaces, schools, and everything else hang off the web now, most people opt in. Soon, though, it may no longer be optional, and opting-out may be impossible.

The other reason I have become skeptical is because the industry itself set very high expectations for me nearly half-century ago.

I trained as a filmmaker, and set myself up to do public affairs documentaries in St Paul-Minneapolis in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the economy then was such that corporations didn’t have six-figure budgets for documentaries anymore. But they did have five-figure budgets for industrial films.

I secured a contract with a local firm, Univac, to write and produce an industrial film to highlight their mainframe computer products.

Early in the engagement, an executive at Univac set a standard that has stuck with me ever since. He stressed that in all the writing I did for Univac, I should be sure to point out how their machines were going to make air travel safer, health care more affordable, and education more broadly based. I had not expected that from a computer company.

At the same time a new book came out that has gone on to be a perennial best seller: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I found out that he supported himself as a tech writer for Univac over the four years it took him to write the book which bears the subtitle: An inquiry into values.

Stress the social value of these computers of ours; inquire into values… I entered the industry believing those stated goals. Ya see kid, computers aren’t inhuman machines that want to bend, fold, spindle or mutilate ya, as many feared on college campuses in the 1960s. They’ll help us achieve our full human potential.

I believed computers were going to have a net beneficial effect on everybody’s life. And I tried to convey that in the news releases I wrote for clients, and in the several books I wrote about life in Silicon Valley when I moved there in the late 1970s.

The Fandango Involvement (Fawcett, 1981) is, I believe, the first published novel set there. That was followed by a non-fiction book that was recognized as a Book of the Year by the Computer Press Association: Charged Bodies: People, Power and Paradox in Silicon Valley (New American Library/Signet, 1985). Both books are paeans to the place.

In the early 1980s, I began to see an inevitable evolution, from data as being like letters; to information when those letters are put together to form words; then knowledge becomes evident when words are joined into sentences. And finally, when sentences are fashioned into poetry or song, they become wisdom.

I genuinely believed that the evolution from data processing in the 70s, to information processing in the 80s, and on to knowledge processing, would finally lead us to something called wisdom processing. That is, taking all this accumulated data, information and knowledge and putting it to beneficial actions for the individual and society.

I envisioned in the early 1980s that we might use our tech-knowledge to increase our self-knowledge; and use our technical capability to leverage our sense of social responsibility.

The D-I-K-W scheme

That was my hope.

By the late ’80s however, even as desktop computers were appearing everywhere, I began to notice the intense stress inside these companies and how it was grinding people down, even to the point of suicides. And I began to suspect that the workplace stress was somehow getting invested into the products.

That’s hard to prove with chips; a circuit design is a circuit design is a circuit design… But with software it’s easier to trace workplace trauma from a conference room into buggy code.

All this was largely invisible to consumers then, as they’d line up at midnight outside computer stores to buy the newest, the latest and the greatest, and argue with each other about tech-specs like Medieval monks debating the number of angels on pinheads.

It was all geek-speak one-upmanship, until a bug caused a system to crash and a user would lose a day’s work. Then the talk switched back to the rich treasury of Anglo-Saxon cuss words at our disposal.

And now, all these years on, it’s painful to look back to find we have achieved none of the stated goals of that Univac executive; and in fact public health, education, infrastructure in the U.S. are crumbling before us.

How much of that breakdown is the result of the stress of the digital revolution, I can’t say. But certainly the speeding up of every facet of life — at work, home, the highway… has put more stress on us than we were ever designed to bear.

An electron can go around the world eight times in a second; an elite athlete needs almost four minutes to run one mile. It should have been evident from the get-go there were going to be problems needing addressing early on. But the industry, and the public, didn’t want to hear about them.

And the digital revolution went on to challenge and disrupt every ‘given’ we once lived by. People used to say, “Its gotta be true, I saw the pictures.” Photoshop from Adobe Systems Inc. put an end to that. “It’s gotta be true. I read it in the paper.” fake, Fake, FAKE…!!! Or maybe not.

Is the world any better for the technical advances of the past 50 years? It certainly is, but those successes in business, medicine, entertainment, education, music and art have happened in an overall society that is much cruder, violent and stressful, and far more broken and threadbare, than it was in 1970.

About Technology

Technological advances are not necessarily good or bad. It’s the uses to which we put them that matters. Hammers, like most tools, are dual-purpose: they can be used to build a house, or to knock a neighbor’s noggin in.

(There are some single-purpose devices, like the AK-47 which is meant solely as a killing machine. It would be useless for plowing a furrow or performing surgery.)

This impending AI revolution will probably have both good and bad outcomes, just as the Internet has been a mixed blessing.

But going forward, it’s prudent — necessary even — for the investors and innovators to think before acting, and give greater consideration to unintended consequences in the social sphere as well as the financial sphere. With all that’s at stake, decisions need to include inputs from others besides engineers and financiers. Because with technology — any technology — there are always unintended consequences. And Murphy continues lurking in the shadows.

As far as we know, tools are not (yet) self-aware. That may change soon, but to the extent that we decided long ago to put tool design and tool use separate and apart from the moral sphere, we created some serious problems for ourselves that must finally be acknowledged and addressed now.

Indicative of how we have stripped even basic notions of right or wrong from the scientific and technical enterprises was the excruciatingly costly arms race when the US and Soviet Union each built and deployed enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons. The scientists on both sides weaponized the atom; the engineers crafted very accurate delivery devices.

The risk of bio-cide, the death of life itself, was deemed acceptable to win the debate over whether their system, where man exploited his fellow man, was better than our system which was just the opposite.

When the doomsday clock edged closest to midnight

And very likely it was the extravagant cost of the arms buildup that was a major reason that since then, funds for public services — health, education, social welfare and environmental concerns — have been cut to the nub.

Incredibly, for all our technical ability, and the number of technical terms that have exploded in recent years, we have no vocabulary for what an ethical engineering enterprise would even look like.

And in my years in the Valley when I raised that point at various times with clients or associates I might as well have started yodeling and juggling turtles for the embarrassment it caused.

Even more incredibly, while we teach Science even in primary school, we don’t teach Technology as a discipline. We teach how to use some tools, like computers in classrooms, but the nature of tools themselves is never examined.

And it’s probably because of that we’ve allowed ourselves to be used by tools as much as we use tools. And when digital technology is so central to life now, it’s no wonder we find ourselves captive to the systems and to the companies that own them which are now as powerful as any government or state. So now we are in something like a digital lobster trap: easy entry; no escape

Tools are how we impose mind on matter. Historically we directed the tools, not the other way around.

The ancients did science as the way to learn the truth of things. As they did technology to make beautiful objects and do good deeds. Science and technology were the means to pursue the holy trinity of Classical virtues: beauty, truth and goodness. They often failed in the effort, but at least science and technology were seen as means to ends, not the ends themselves.

And to help attain the virtues (from Latin for manliness) of the Classical Age, the wise women and men of antiquity crafted two maxims: the golden mean (pursue the middle path between extremes), and the golden rule (treat others as you’d wish to be treated). Maybe rediscovering those gold nuggets would be helpful in navigating our silicon society today.

All technology rests on the principle of leverage, achieving greater outcomes while minimizing inputs. It’s easier to drive a nail with a hammer than with your fist. And the six tools of antiquity (lever, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, screw, and wheel and axle) leveraged our muscles, and were needed if we were to drain swamps, irrigate fields, and move stones from quarries to build cities.

Then, about 500 years ago, we began developing tools to leverage our senses: telescopes, microscopes, radios. And enhancing our senses let us see nature as never before, up close and far away, and so began the scientific revolution.

Isaac Newton could even put a mathematical formula now to the reason carpenters use a hammer instead of their fist: F=MA. Force equals mass times acceleration. The steel hammerhead has much more mass than a palm.

Galileo’s early telescopes let him see the surface of the moon as never before. To his shock, he found the lunar surface pockmarked like the face of a pox victim. Not possible! The heavens were understood to be God’s throne room, and therefore without blemish. Oh dear, how will the old faith manage in the face of such blasphemous discoveries?

It got worse. One of the first things Antonie van Leeuwenhoek examined through his new microscope were sperm cells. And seen at that scale it was evident the man’s seed did not contain the entire child, as commonly believed then. Mom in fact was more than just an oven for the man’s fully-formed bun to grow. Women are the equals of men in making babies. (Not that it allowed women to be treated any better.)

And in the 20th Century we developed the technology to leverage our brains: integrated circuits, microprocessors, gene machines…

And during this rollout of tools to leverage muscles, senses and brains, humans also developed spiritual technologies to leverage the mind and soul, include prayer, fasting, alms-giving, yoga, meditation and chi gong.

But a tragic combination of theological obtuseness and scientific positivism centuries ago caused the portfolio of tools for the muscles-senses-brains to become separated from the tools for the human spirit, or even the more nebulous world spirit.

And now we have made science and technology goals unto themselves to the point that we are now tools of our tools. And the hands on the levers are increasingly held by fewer and more powerful people.

And yet we find ourselves still in thrall to belief systems that are thousands of years old, and increasingly useless in addressing contemporary issues those old prophets could never have envisioned.

And from our perspective, it is hard to look back and imagine the God of the Abrahamic tradition, ensconced on his (never her) marble throne, having the subtlety of mind to conceive fractals or the Fibonacci sequence.

And unfortunately, we take that as grounds for divorce. Until the language of the sacred or holy can absorb chaos theory, relativity theory, evolution and quantum theories we will continue to suffer this needless, painful schism between body and soul, physics and metaphysics, natural and supernatural.

The upshot is that in fact we live in a uni-verse, not a bi-verse. The physical and metaphysical, the natural and supernatural, are the same reality, just factored different ways. The fact we can’t see that speaks to our relative immaturity.

In the West, we cling to 4,000-year-old notions of god — the old man with the grey beard wearing a crown, made in the image and likeness of old men with crowns and panoply.

Who is made in whose image and likeness?

We cannot seem to give ourselves leave to imagine that the reality that underpins visible reality might in fact be conscious and is elegant enough to come up with notions like the double helix, black holes and big bangs.

Even in the 1930s, British astronomer, mathematician and physicist Sir James Jeans noted, “The universe looks more and more like a great thought rather than a great machine.” Then who or what or how is doing the thinking?

Whatever holds the universe together is always evolving and expanding; yet the universe itself is complete at every moment.

The rate of expansion of the universe is such that were it off by a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent, slower or faster, the universe wouldn’t work. It would either collapse back to a big crunch, or dither off into cold, dark empty nothingness.

Insights like that, made available by increasingly sophisticated computers (and calculated by Stephen Hawking), should cause us to at least suspect that there are layers of reality far deeper than we ever imagined, and still many more layers after that. And whatever that reality is, it deserves our attention and awe.

Where this impacts daily life today is that the natural sciences show us a world that is elegantly interconnected, and we parlay that into tools like the world wide web. But many of our religious institutions still insist on the notion of God as a wedge: to separate the elect from the outcasts. And we devote a lot of our lethal killing tools in the cause of religiously motivated violence.

Whatever holds the universe together is not wedge-shaped but is a web of existence, with each node vital to the existence of the whole. We need to do a better job of incorporating that reality in the design and use of our tools that are ultimately based on the insights of the new sciences which are, in turn, showing us a holographic cosmos — each part containing the whole and the whole of the cosmos found in each part.

(And a curious thought, but if droids and robots do replace humans in times to come, what kind of gods will they make in their image and likeness?)

We evolved from tiny primates to masters of the planet due to two capabilities unique to humans: big brains and dexterous hands. We survived nature’s worst for millions of years, now nature must survive our man-made, digital world, based on the idea that with big data and artificial intelligence we can be smarter than nature.

On the individual level, we need ways to be productive people in the world but find some way to minimize or eliminate our dependence on Internet schemes controlled by a powerful few. To have to find a way to live a human and humane life connected to the larger world, but not encased in this ‘digital lobster trap’ controlled by corporate entities obsessed with surveilling us in more detail than any police state ever did. And we need a systematic, non-dogmatic path to re-infuse issues of value, virtue and meaning into the technologies now at the center of our lives, which are currently devoid of any such considerations.

This is not a matter of creating new dogmas or new orthodoxies: closed books of received wisdom to which nothing can be added and nothing taken away, and then forced upon people. On the contrary, we need to attend to ethical activities which make sense on their own and do not require obedience to archaic dogmas that claim to have all the answers but in fact don’t even know the questions any more.

Even a few decades ago, people could argue the rightness or wrongness of something, but at least agree there are such things and right and wrong. But even that most basic recognition seems to be lost now.

How do we begin to rebuild a civil, just, decent society, making the best use of the benefits of technology, when so many of our most trusted institutions have proven themselves morally bankrupt and unapologetic about it.

The two pillars of most of the world’s ethical systems come down to: develop calmness within yourself, and share that in acts of kindness with all others. This is not rocket science.

It can be stated very simply, on a bumper sticker: Be calm; be kind.

Carve that into the dashboard of your self-driving car.

To start, perhaps small groups of kindred spirits can convene occasionally or regularly to discuss how they are dealing with the lobster trap we are all in, and seek and get mutual support to rediscover how to regain composure within themselves and among others, and share it in acts of kindness.

And work in our own lives to return civility, decency and kindness again into the public sphere. Most of us have to live and work in the technology-driven world, and most of us are also keenly aware of how much of ourselves we have sacrificed to survive and succeed there.

It’s time to start talking to each other about what the current and coming brave new world will look like, and how it we want it to play out for us and our descendants. How do we use the amazing portfolio of tools now at our disposal to leverage our better instincts and propagate them in the world.

It comes down to very simply questions: Do we want to use our technologies to make life better? Or be used by our tools for the enrchment of a very small colony of centi-billionaires?

And consider this 10-step model for digital moderation that has proven to be so helpful curing other addictive behaviors.

1. Admit we are powerless over our digital devices; our lives have become unmanageable without them.

2. Believe that we have the power, with the help of others, to restore ourselves to balance.

3. Make an honest inventory of time spent online and thus inattentive to people and nature around us.

4. Determine the right balance of digital devices needed in our own situations to be productive, but not addicted.

5. Make a list of all people we had harmed in our digital distraction.

6. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible.

7. Continue taking a personal inventory, and when we slip — as we will — acknowledge the difficulty of this effort, and carry on.

8. Seek amid the many spiritual technologies (prayer, meditation, yoga, chi gong, etc.) ways to focus on the signal of meaning in our lives and minimize the noise of distraction.

9. Gently carry this message to others similarly afflicted, and share hope with them.

10. When we use any tool, do so in a composed frame of mind. And to the extent possible, determine that the outcomes of the tool-use are kind actions, or at least not hurtful. Experiment with the two gold nuggets in our silicon society: the golden mean and the golden rule. Be calm; be kind.

And internalize a modified Serenity Prayer: Be thankful for tools that leverage our humanity. Avoid tools that degrade us and turn us into automatons. And develop the wisdom to know the difference.

(3400 words)



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store