The Digital Revolution Succeeded as a Technical Project; Now it Must Succeed as a Human Project
Reflections of a 40-year veteran of Silicon Valley
~ Tom Mahon ~
I spent the first 30 years of my life raised in a strong faith tradition and educated in the humanities.
Then I spent the next 40 years of my life as a writer in Silicon Valley, where everything I learned in the first half was utterly irrelevant.
And now, recovering from some health issues, I’ve had time to reflect on this long, strange trip. And share some reflections….
Every week reveals further examples of the dark possibilities of the Internet. The problems have gone far beyond ID theft, unwarranted surveillance, and hacked bank accounts.
Now they include the manipulation of a presidential election; debasing of the very notion of truth; and the prospect of state-sponsored cyber warfare.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. None of this was on the horizon when I backed into writing for the electronics/computing industry in 1974.
My first client, the VP of Quality Assurance at Univac, told me back then to stress the social benefits that his company’s mainframe computers would bring: convenient mass transit, affordable health care, and equal access to excellent educations.
And all these years later, in spite of all the financial, intellectual, technical resources invested, we’ve achieved none of those goals. How is that possible?
Not only did some important stuff not get done, but I’ve never heard anyone say where all this is supposed to go. Why is digitizing the world a worthwhile undertaking? It may well be, but why?
Up to now, our digital devices were outside of us; we could turn them off when we wanted. But digitization may eventually include brain-machine interfaces or implants to enhance intelligence for the general public.
(Although if everyone gets enhanced, there’s no net gain. And if only some get enhanced, what happens to the rest? Remember, too, how often the digital industries launch unstable, crash-prone products and leave it to ‘early adopters’ to deal with the problems. An OpSys crash on a PC is a nuisance. A brain crash is catastrophic.)
All this is only prelude to the Technological Singularity expected to come in 20–25 years, when human-made super-intelligent machines may possibly zoom far beyond us, initiating unprecedented, perhaps irrevocable, changes in the meaning of life, intelligence and consciousness.
(And when our software is so advanced it writes its own next-gen products, will there still be a place for organic beings like us?)
These issues were once called science fiction. Now they’re called moonshots: well–funded projects that hasten the digitization of Planet Earth. Again, why? It seems to be based on the idea that the natural, analog world isn’t working well enough, so we’ll run everything under our digital algorithms, and that’ll take care of that. It’s all good. Trust us, we know what we’re doing.
IMHO, it’s past the time that the general public get involved in decisions about the role of electronic digital technology in our personal and communal lives.
Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) showed that an informed public could demand and get input on industries affecting the common good.
There is nothing like that now regarding digitization, and the industry lobby is so strong that change will not come from above. So we have to initiate the process from the grassroots and find for ourselves a sane middle ground between the ultra-violent and the trivial that take up so much bandwidth.
For the sake of future generations, we need to regain the virtues of dignity, decency and integrity that are rapidly vanishing as we are compelled to live at the speed of light. We drown in data, but are starved for meaning.
Sometime the first step in confronting any mammoth issue is just to frame the right questions. So I’ll suggest some: how do we find ways to reconnect our current tech-knowledge with the age-old quest for self-knowledge; and how do we bring together our expanding technical capability with a renewed sense of moral/social responsibility.
All technology is based on leverage: minimizing inputs while achieving greater outputs. The first tools of classical antiquity, like the lever and the wheel, allowed our ancestors to leverage their muscles and so begin the Neolithic revolution.
Then about five hundred years ago, tools were developed that leveraged our senses — telescopes, microscopes and later the radio — and gave us the scientific and industrial revolutions.
Unfortunately, some of the early sense observations were in conflict with established religious texts, leading to horrible bloodshed. Until finally, a truce of sorts was established between the churchmen and the scientists. They divided the Book of Knowledge between themselves.
What pertains to the earth, the natural and the physical, is a suitable subject for the scientists. And what is of heaven, the supernatural and the metaphysical, belongs solely to the church. And ne’er the twain should meet.
Technical capability and moral responsibility were divorced. And for all our advances in the past 500 years, we continue to separate the natural and the supernatural in our minds, as if they are two different realities. They aren’t. It’s all one uni-verse.
Our failure to see that reflects our limited understanding, and is not a failing of the universe’s operating system.
In fact, revelations in the natural sciences in the past century show that we live in a both-and, not an either-or universe; more web-like than wedge-like. Mass and energy are not two separate realities, but the same thing factored different ways. Apparent chaos is highly refined order. Time is both straight and curved.
And some now even think the universe is a hologram — with each part containing the whole. There’s even some speculation that the entire cosmos is a single wave function.
There is a moral order in the universe — nature never lies or steals, and kills only to sustain new life. And that moral order is as real and compelling as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. And we neglect to recognize that at our peril. We need to acknowledge that when we use any tool, whether a screwdriver or a supercomputer, it has a moral component.
And understand that wise men and women in many different cultures through history identified two pillars of wisdom that in time became the cornerstones of the world’s ethical systems: be calm within yourself, and in that composed frame of mind be kind to all others: Be calm, be kind.
In the Classical Age, two thousand years ago, doing science (the quest for knowledge), was the way to arrive at the truth of things. And technology (literally anything of human design) allowed us to make beautiful things and do good deeds.
The ancients considered science and technology as the means to achieve the Classical virtues of beauty, truth and goodness. Now science and technology are ends themselves, outside moral constraints.
The stress we all endure, functioning in the endless tsunami of novelty and complexity, is driving us crazy. Perhaps digitizing medicine will solve the nation’s health care crisis. And I hope it does. But until we get a handle on the stress we now live with at school, work and at home every day, expecting to get it fixed in the doctor’s office is overly optimistic.
So, a suggestion: as often as you can, take a moment to compose yourself before you input your energy into a tool, whether hammer or responding to an email. And to the extent you can, direct that the leveraged output will be an act of kindness.
I know it’s difficult to do this most of the time. Believe me, I know. Opportunities to behave thoughtfully are rare today. But it can be done. And each effort makes the next one easier.
As you work to develop this habit, encourage friends and colleagues to practice it, too. Starting at grassroots, be creative in leveraging this amazing portfolio of tools now at our disposal so as to end, rather than magnify, the present global regime of greed, gain and self-aggrandizement.
Only a dying society objects to practicing kindness.
Imagine if the user manual for all tools began with this reminder: be calm; be kind… Composure upon approaching the lever; compassion as the intended output of the leverage.
And rediscover two gold nuggets of antiquity for a silicon society.
The first is the golden mean. Live in moderation; avoid the extremes of too much or too little. (Read The Deer Park Sermon by the Buddha, one who is awakened from within.)
The second nugget is the golden rule. The silver rule tells us to avoid evil, the golden rule instructs us to do good. And now we have so many tools to do just that. (Read The Sermon on the Mount by the Christ, one anointed from on high. And the Christ and the Buddha complete each other.)
I trust the goodwill of the men I met back in the early days of the digital revolution: they intended their machines to free us up to develop our humanity, not that we should become the frenzied tools of our tools, in turn controlled by small groups who often seem to be long on data but short on wisdom.
The world will grow increasingly digital and that doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as we redirect the tech juggernaut to our benefit, not to technology’s benefit as is so often the case today. Or else we will, with lemming-like efficiency, sail off a cliff of our own ingenuity.
My suggestions are necessarily vague; the issue is so large and so complicated as to seem overwhelming. The first step is to believe something can be done. Nothing stops ideas whose time has come; and the time has come to stop being the tool of our tools, and of those few firms that control them.
The wisdom of the ages still works in digital times: As often as you can, be calm when you enter your energy into a tool. And to the extent possible, direct that the output will be a kindness. Be calm; be kind.
If not us, who; if not now, when?
Copyright for all illustrations remains with the respective copyright holders.
Text © 2018, Tom Mahon