I’ve been hearing about a number of interesting science/tech education projects recently, all approaching the topic in innovative and very hands-on ways. Just recently I met someone working for a new startup called Ardusat, which provides students with the opportunity to program and operate Arduino microcontrollers aboard satellites. These microcontrollers are connected to a variety of sensors, allowing students to design experiments and collect a variety of data. Here we are, barely 50 years after the launch of Sputnik, and space has become a laboratory accessible from the classroom.
I’m quite interested in how new technologies change the way we think, and I often wonder which of these changes are desirable and which are not. All the same, when I found this article from Dean Burnett, I had to chuckle a bit. Burnett lays out for us once and for all how to write any article addressing the question of technology and the brain.
The article is concerned about the effects this new technology will have on the brain, so you will need to include a general explanation of the brain’s workings, particularly a feature of it that is somehow relevant to this new thing people should be scared of.
For example, if the new technology offers new types of visual stimulation, briefly describe the brain’s complex visual system. If it’s more language based, the language processing features of the brain can be discussed. It’s a big, complex organ, the brain; there’s probably some feature of it that seemingly supports your “concerns”, so don’t feel restricted.
Wendell Berry, in his essay ‘Preserving Wildness’, defines his position on the issue of protecting ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’. He views this problem as one which there is often a high degree of polarization between ‘nature extremists’ on the one hand, who see the natural operations of the environment as dominant over mankind’s imposed artificiality and who favor something like a primitivist, back-to-the-land ideology, and ‘technology extremists’ on the other hand, who believe that the creativity of the human species reigns supreme and all problems can be solved by our wits combined with new technologies. The outline of his middle ground is as follows:
1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.3. That we depend on what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place – which means, ultimately, the good of the world.6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.
We have no way to work at this question, it seems to me, except by perceiving that, in order to have the world, we must share it, both with each other and with other creatures, which is immediately complicated by the further perception that, in order to live in the world, we must use it somewhat at the expense of other creatures. We must acknowledge both the centrality and the limits of our self-interest. One can hardly imagine a tougher situation.
The worst disease of the world now is probably the ideology of technological heroism, according to which more and more people willingly cause large-scale effects that they do not foresee and that they cannot control.
Well, still quite busy, but perhaps I can make some time for a brief discussion.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been looking through a book called ‘Modern Science and Human Values’, by William Lowrance. There are many interesting ideas in it, and I haven’t yet even made it halfway through the book, but I want to bring up one of his comments. The book is all about the ongoing effect that scientific knowledge and technological inventions have on the developments of the human species. Early on in the book, Lowrance states that his approach to the subject is one in which he views technical progress as ‘deliberately directed tragedy’. Where ‘tragedy’, he clarifies, is taken to mean “the deliberate confrontation of deeply important but nearly irresolvable life issues.” He goes on to say that “tragedy begins in our knowing of causalities, in our intervening in particular causes, and in our technical enlargement of interventional possibilities.” Examples of this are quite prevalent from the large scale to the small. With the production of atomic bombs, the question arises, when and where do you use them? What are the costs (in terms of money or people) of using them or not using them? With the development of medical technology, and the rise in cost associated with more complex machinery, the question can be asked, when is it too costly to preserve a life? The tragedy of these situations is due to competition between two or more values on a stage where there is no clear winner.
I agree with Lowrance’s view that science gives us tragic confrontations, for the same reason as gaining any sort of knowledge can open up difficult choices. It’s the well-worn idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The humanities – art, literature, music, etc. – can help us in this regard, teaching us how to deal with tragedy, with the tragic confrontation of values.
This theme has more or less been an undercurrent to much of what I’ve written about so far in this blog, and I want to continue to explore to it, to hash out the relationships between science, technology, values, and progress and to begin to address in some small way the questions that arise at the boundaries of these topics. Science and technology present us with many difficult issues. Rather than embrace ignorance, or make a blanket decision to forgo all technological advancements, is there some way of deliberately determining the level of technology to accept in our daily lives? What are the tools I need to live my values and attain my goals? What are the tools that humanity needs? How do we, as a species, deal with the uncomfortable truths that science might uncover?
Jamais Cascio had an essay in The Atlantic a few years ago that I only just found (see Get Smarter) on the use of new technologies to boost our intelligence. The essay is mostly a response to the ideas posed by an earlier essay by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid, i.e., is the constant onslaught of information that we experience everyday making it impossible to concentrate on and think deeply about one particular task. Cascio challenges the idea that we become stupider when we assign more of our mental ability to technological assistance and makes the case that, to the contrary, we are increasing our ‘fluid intelligence’, “the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge.”
Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”
As off-putting as this may sound to some people, he points out that we take for granted many ways that technology (be it physical objects or simply just tactics and techniques) already permeate our lives and enable us to do things humans didn’t used to be able to do. What’s more, technology has already been enhancing our mental abilities for the last several centuries.
Of course, we’ve been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed written language, we significantly increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. The rise of urbanization allowed a fraction of the populace to focus on more-cerebral tasks—a fraction that grew inexorably as more-complex economic and social practices demanded more knowledge work, and industrial technology reduced the demand for manual labor. And caffeine and nicotine, of course, are both classic cognitive-enhancement drugs, primitive though they may be.
The future, as he sees it, involves more ‘intelligence augmentation’ and a greater push towards tools for increased productivity (just consider the levels of caffeine consumed in the US).
Such a future would bear little resemblance to Brave New World or similar narcomantic nightmares; we may fear the idea of a population kept doped and placated, but we’re more likely to see a populace stuck in overdrive, searching out the last bits of competitive advantage, business insight, and radical innovation. No small amount of that innovation would be directed toward inventing the next, more powerful cognitive-enhancement technology.
This stands in contrast to the idea of ‘presence over productivity’, a theme that Maria Popova at BrainPickings touches on from time to time.
There’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.
There is certainly a balance that must be struck between getting things done, which involves a lot of abstract thinking and planning for the future, and being aware of our surroundings and our lives in the present moment. Various people swing towards one side or the other (and as Popova points out, different people have different ways of being ‘present’). For my part, I’m still trying to find the right proportion of each. It’s a work in progress.
I’ve just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952 when Vonnegut was a sprightly young 30 years old, and I thought I’d give some of my thoughts, along with a couple of quotes gleaned from the pages.
The essential story-line follows the trials and tribulations of Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager in a heavily automated post WWII America, a time when the country is run by engineers and managers and machines have all but supplanted the regular Joes and Josephines from their jobs. In this book, Vonnegut is exploring the meaning of work in our lives, and what a vital role it plays in giving us meaning and purpose.
“Go to the library sometime and take a look at magazines and newspapers clear back as far as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production – know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true. Even then, half the people or more didn’t understand much about the things they were making. They were participating in the economy all right, but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego.”
In the book, Dr. Proteus is the director of the Ilium Works, a collection of automated machines responsible for much of the upkeep of daily life: plumbing, electricity, etc. The country is stratified based on IQ tests performed in high school, and those not intelligent enough to attend college and achieve doctorates have two choices for the future: enlist in the army, or join the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the “Reeks and Wrecks”), a construction crew responsible for all the low skilled manual labor that needs to be done. These two groups, the highly educated engineers/managers and their poorly educated countrymen, inhabit two entirely different social spheres.
As the novel progresses, Proteus has a growing unease with his place in society and the privileges that are afforded him on the basis of his IQ, and he begins to encounter more and more the detrimental effects of automation on society, from the restrictions it places on people wishing to pursue their individual goals, to the quashing of innovation and creativity in the face of an overwhelmingly rigid system. And above all, there is the sense that removing labor from the lives of people in some way dehumanizes them. There are fundamental connections between the work we do and the purpose we feel in our lives.
Though this book is about 60 years old, the issues it addresses are still very much relevant today, in particular this idea that automation (then it was machines, today we could add computers to the mix as well) are creating a U-shaped curve of available jobs, with peaks for low-skilled and high-skilled jobs and a hollowing out in the middle.
Without going into too much detail, the novel begins to take a turn when Proteus falls in with the Ghost Shirt Society, a collection of malcontents from both sides of the societal spectrum. Their aim is to overcome the trend of automation and restore work to what they view as it’s rightfully respected place.
“The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
‘Player Piano’ has some very strong ties to another book i have been reading through lately, ‘Small is Beautiful‘. This book, written by E.F. Schumacher and published about 20 years after ‘Player Piano’, deals with many of the same issues, namely the value of work and the downsides of placing efficiency and economic growth as end goals. I’ll do a book report on ‘Small is Beautiful’ when I’m done with it, but for now I’ll share a couple of passages that seem highly relevant:
“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”
“What technology has enabled us to do: namely, to reduce the amount of time actually spent on production in its most elementary sense to such a tiny percentage of total social time that pales into insignificance, that it carries no real weight, let alone prestige.”