Technology Schmechnology: Do We still have the luxury of choice?

Opening Thoughts

This series of posts started out to be the beginnings of a book by the same name, but being a self-diagnosed victim of Inattentive ADHD, the likelihood of a fully vetted book seems elusive. A wise friend suggested turning to the Blogosphere, so here we are. Truth is, by the time that book would ever go public, laptops would probably be history (there are signs already). They’ll go the way of the CD player and video tapes. The web of technology in our lives is endlessly expanding and, to capitalize on the metaphor, trapping us in ways we’ve not fully appreciated. One of the big challenges for me was to get a book out before books are just added to the chip implanted at birth. Okay, that’s a creepy way to start this off, but it is Halloween. At any rate, turning to the blog seemed a more expedient path.

I’m not aware of anyone who hates technology really. There are certainly those who say they do, but let’s be serious. Technology allows me to retrieve my laptop from the basement office and sit on the patio on a cool morning instead of (1) being tethered to the basement office, (2) lugging a typewriter upstairs or, for that matter, (3) chipping my thoughts on a cave wall. Technology allows the random placement of garden lights that highlight our landscape in the evening, powered by solar cells and rechargeable batteries. It allows us to virtually feel the excitement of The Big Game without the hassle and expense of driving, parking and consuming beer and stadium food. Technology has brought every conceivable corner of the universe to a hand-held video screen.

There isn’t anything inherently non-spiritual about technology in the broad sense. Well, there is that nuclear weapon thing, but it’s the human intent behind the technology that gets us in trouble, and that is at the heart of the message here. Blaming technology doesn’t get to the root of the “problem” of technology. We’ve all heard the mantra of the National Rifle Association that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”  There is (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) a kernel of truth to that, however miniscule. Never mind that easy access to guns and human weaknesses significantly complicate the issue; humans and firearms being the two primary components of gun violence, it would seem more practical in the long run to reduce the number of firearms rather than humans. But for the sake of making my point, consider me acquiescing to the NRA mantra, if only temporarily (if nobody is near a cache of automatic rifles in the middle of the forest, do they make a sound?). So far, humans are still in control. Sort of.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, humans have a hand in several points along the line of a technology’s lifespan. They see a need, observe the available resources, experience an “aha!” moment, develop the technology, make it available to the masses, and sometimes clean up after the mess they’ve made. That lifecycle plays out every moment of every day. Volumes have been written on the endless array of players in this era of technology, detailing the wonder, the miracles and, yes, the horror introduced by the human desire to make things better, easier or faster. My goal in this series is only to pop in with somewhat random thoughts of one individual who was born before most people had a television. Damn. Writing that gives me pause.

Where is this going?

It would be good – life-sustaining, even – to find some balance in the way we develop and use technology. That sentiment is at the heart of this epistle. The presumption is that an intelligent race should be able to harness innovation and invention to the benefit of humanity, rather than contribute to the acceleration of extinction, human or otherwise. Therein lies part of the problem, the belief that intelligence will result in wisdom. A lot of smart people have done some very dumb things. But we could start with focusing more on education.

According to the World Bank, in 2007 the U.S. ranked 58th in education spending as a percent of GDP, compared to other developed countries for per-capita education spending. In 2011 it rose from the 1999 level of 4.8% to 5.2%. By comparison, Britain’s was 5.8% in 2011, up from 4.3% in 1999, and Canada’s went from 5.6% to 5.3% over the same period. Frankly, with all the variables involved like per-student spending, literacy rates, teacher/student ratios, subject focus and the like, it’s darn near impossible to draw any conclusions as to the impact of education spending on the general improvement – or decline – of the wisdom of a population. But with the current cultural trend to dismiss science or critical thinking because it doesn’t line up with a particular narrative, it seems a hard look at education is in order. What are we teaching, and why?

Education doesn’t guarantee beneficial results. Knowing how to do something really should be paired with critical thinking, asking the questions “why?” and “to what end?” The application of technology to a variety of cultures could net entirely different outcomes depending on who’s running the show. Take nuclear energy, for example. Please. Fusion, putting atoms together instead of tearing them apart (fission), produces minimal waste and about four times the energy as fission, which seems like a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, as of January 2016, nuclear fusion consumes more energy than it produces. Fusion is self-sustaining once the reaction gets started, but therein lies [part of] the problem. Providing the conditions for fusing two hydrogen atoms is a no-brainer on the sun and stars, but duplicating those conditions on Earth is a bit of a challenge. But there’s good news! Energy from fusion, it turns out, has already been provided for us in the form of that big round shiny thing that comes up every morning, even in Seattle.

The availability of power from the sun has been complemented by the acceleration of technological devices to use it. The development of these devices has opened the door to possibilities of Jules Verne proportion, but there are consequences from taking this path as well. More on that later.

Here’s the thing: if we could emulate Nature in our quest for convenience and technological advancement, would we not all benefit? Nature is elegant in Her design (of which, by the way, we are all a part). Waste equals food, and life is a circle, not a ramp to Heaven. And Nature did okay for the first few billion years before humans made an appearance, although it could be accurately pointed out that She wasn’t all that keen on favoritism toward any member of the natural family. Survival of the fittest comes to mind which, incidentally, speaks to the future we’re creating.

“The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

~ Janine Benyus

Janine Benyus, who co-founded the Biomimicry Institute,  captured this idea in her book Biomimicry, Innovation Inspired by Nature.  It was my great fortune to have crossed paths with Janine a few years ago in her home state of Montana. Her passion is inspiring, but the premise she posits is nothing short of save-the-world critical.

“…any technology, even if it’s a technology inspired by nature, can be used for good or bad. The airplane, for instance, was inspired by bird flight; a mere eleven years after we invented it, we were bombing people with it.

As author Bill McKibben says, our tools are always employed in the service of an ideology. Our ideology – the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe – has to change if we are to treat the living Earth with respect.

Right now we tell ourselves that the Earth was put here for our use; that we are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to Earthlings. But of course this is a myth. We’ve had a run of spectacular luck, but we are not necessarily the best survivors over the long haul. We are not immune to the laws of natural selection, and if we overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, we will pay the consequences.” — Excerpt from “What Do You Mean by the Term Biomimicry? A Conversation with Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.”

Bill McKibben’s reference to “ideology” and Janine’s to using technology “for good or bad” is the essence of this message. And speaking of consequences, we are in the throes of the consequences of human activity and “progress” as climate change tosses us a new challenge on a daily basis. The globe has a fever, and the meds for dropping the temperature are apparently still in beta stage.

Onward

Suffice to say that to delve into the world of technology is to skim the ocean’s surface looking for sea life. The range of possible subjects is immense. When one looks around, one cannot swing a dishtowel without hitting some form of technological or mechanical wizardry. New mutations are emerging much faster than I can type, which, to be fair, could apply to pretty much anything involving my motor skills. At any rate, take this laptop on which I’m tapping for example. How far back would you think I’d have to go to find a simpler mode of communication that made the least impact on the planet? Typewriter? Big Chief tablet? Meticulous chronicling by monks? Stone carvings? There are vast advantages to the technology I’m using, but there are also penalties.  So the goal here is to see if there is actually an evolution of human invention that won’t eventually send us back to the Stone Age to start all over. OK, that’s a worst-case scenario. How about we look for something in between?

One last thing

Technology – and current events – move considerably faster than my ability to keep up. By the time a blog post is a few weeks old some of the topics could very well have been altered by a new idea, a flashy app or a scientific breakthrough. Sorry, but like I said, I just can’t type that fast. Caveat emptor.