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The Soul of Technology

My father, once holder of an open fascination with Darth Vader as the ultimate integration of man and machine, for many years sought to keep me focused on technology by disputing the validity of my spiritual experience. He’s mellowing in the last few months of his life, and we’ve had some great conversations. Sunday afternoon’s brought us around to Elon Musk’s ambition to terraform Mars. He asked my opinion of the idea, and I said that I felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Musk. I countered the claim that we needed an escape route from the mess that we were making of Earth. We’re going to have to solve our problems here, and when we do, the personality of Mr. Musk – from wherever it is at that point – is going to look back on this life and say “Wow. What a boondoggle that was! What a complete waste of my time!” He seems like a man with good intentions, and I’d just like for him to be able to look back and be proud of what he has accomplished.

When I was blogging out at Gaia, one of the most persistent voices in the “Question of the Day” group was a Kiwi nearing the end of his life. Every question produced a number of lengthy posts on the same topic: the necessity of investment in digital technologies that would allow us to monitor everything, and then to link the information to a master control system that would ensure the well-being of everyone on earth. When pressed, he claimed that this was important to him because if it didn’t happen really soon, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to live forever. I offered him the observation that he seemed to need God so deeply that he believe that mankind must create him.

The protagonist in both Ma and Golem is an alien named Corin Taphinal, come to Earth to try to protect life from destruction at humanity’s hands. He describes the situation this way:

The digital technology of [Earth’s] civilization had fascinated him. It was based upon the conversion of the most mystically inert substance in the universe – amorphous silicon – into precisely contaminated crystals. Its proponents spoke of blanketing the globe in digital sensors, constructing communications networks and data centers to aggregate the data, and the development of expert systems algorithms to assure the stability of human communities in the face of massive ecosystem disruption.

Why, in the name of all that was sacred, would anyone choose such methods? Over billions of years, the insinuation of Life into any planet’s surface established a far more sensitive and detailed sensory apparatus, supported by the most widely and freely distributed source of energy available, with representatives far better adapted to local conditions than people.

With this background, you might ask, “Why, Brian, do you work in technology?” Is it just to pay the bills?

I’ll protest my own rhetoric: that’s just going too far. Just because I don’t believe that technology is the ultimate solution to our problems doesn’t mean that I don’t find merit in its pursuit.

First, the world is an unstable place. I’m not just talking about natural disasters: for large parts of the year, seasonal variation makes life pretty tough for most animals. Technology stabilizes local conditions, allowing us to focus on developing our personalities. I appreciate that I don’t have to think full-time about weather, but can rely upon sensors and actuators controlled by computers to do it for me. That our solutions are making the challenge more difficult (global climate change) doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t valuable. The problem is that most of us, rather than developing our personalities, use our freedom from existential threat to indulge our procreative urges.

The solution to that is education. While knowledge is dangerous (life is incredibly vulnerable in engineering terms), I believe that understanding empowers us to make far better choices. We know that when the value of a woman’s mind has been affirmed through education they become pretty determined to limit the number of their children. The response of traditionalists has been to beat women down with fear. In that case, the best means of breaking down the rationale of political demagogues is disintermediation: bringing people together to demonstrate that the “enemy” is a lot like us. Communications technology addresses both of these problems, providing open access to knowledge in the privacy of the home and bridging the distance that separates us.

And finally – motivating my particular fascination with programming – software rescues philosophy from academic obscurity. The purpose of philosophy is to strengthen our ability to describe experience and thus to negotiate solutions. Through linkage to our financial and industrial infrastructure, software allows us almost instantly to express the solutions we negotiate. That is not just a one-off experience when (as in object-oriented design or COBOL) the software is defined using terms understood in the application domain. These act as sign-posts for the maintenance developer given the task of implementing new requirements.

I spoke, however, of rescuing philosophy, and I mean that. Software encodes philosophy, not as a book on a shelf, but as an agent for delivering solutions to the philosopher’s constituency. With the Affordable Health Care Act, software allowed us to implement social programs, assess their effectiveness, and adjust the rules to achieve better results. This is a demanding test of our philosophy, both as regards the degree in which they reflect the truth, and its value in organizing the use of our intelligence when conditions change.

As I have offered before (see The Trust Mind), I believe that eventually we will be freed from the material infrastructure we use to distribute power. However, as I see the long period from the Covenant of the Flood (in which humanity was authorized to create Law) to Jesus as an exercise in demonstrating the fallibility of fixed systems of rules, so I see this era (as articulated by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization) as a proving ground for our compassion. As technology accelerates the pace of change and resources become more and more scarce, only ideas of real merit will survive. Every thinking being will be confronted with the necessity of disciplining his thoughts.

While the demagogues continue to rant and rave on television, conditions are evolving under which every individual will find such blathering contradicted by direct personal experience. Then we will progress beyond the “birthing pains” mentioned by Jesus into the full flowering of the influence of Christ in our lives. When our ideas are angelic, they will be received and implemented by angels. Life will be vastly different then, and our digital infrastructure, with all its energetic excess, will largely fall away.

I see my work as intimately connected to the manifestation of that future. My work in motion control creates systems that relieve people of drudgery, thus liberating their energies for mindful and compassionate engagement with the world around them. My work in as a software developer builds discipline that is essential in organizing and propagating ideas that I believe are of merit. It’s not enough that those ideas are clever – they actually have to work.

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