#understanding society and self

What Technology Wants – History and Future of Technology

on Nov 19, 2010

click to go to Kevin Kelly's websiteIt’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).

Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.

There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)

There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.

As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them.  I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.

A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

on Nov 1, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.

The Golden Arrow of Consumerism

on Jul 14, 2010

Your stuff sucks! You suck! How can you be happy with that? What you need is new stuff. This is the message we’re blasted with all day and every day to propel the golden arrow of consumerism. Our American society is built around its citizens consuming more and more. Likewise, we’re distracted from all the consequences of our consumer habits – from the environmental damage, the slave-like livelihoods of those making our stuff (more on these in a future post), and the government catering more to corporations than to its citizens.

All of these points are illustrated well in The Story of Stuff (embedded above). Although this video seems geared toward kids, it provides a thoroughly important message for everyone. It shows how we’re under constant barrage of messages telling us to get new things, and how much happier we’d be to have them. Consider your daily life – how often are you exposed to advertising? On the TV. On websites. On billboards while driving. In the news. In people talking about and showing off the latest and greatest new product. We’re swimming in it!

Consumer product companies have also developed strategies to keep us buying stuff. Consider planned obsolescence, where products are designed to break (or become obsolete) as quickly as possible but lasting long enough to maintain customer loyalty. Our technological advancement is also slowed down – companies are better off holding off on features so that they have something to add in the next version of the product and so on. (It’s an unfortunate situation that most every company must adhere to this if it intends on being successful.) Also consider the more powerful forces of perceived obsolescence, where consumers are convinced that they need to buy the latest and greatest despite already owning something that is fully adequate.

All this has much to do with our daily lives and our happiness. As the video states, “What’s the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have?” We’re fooled into thinking we need more stuff and newer stuff. Consequently, we have to work longer and harder to have more money to buy more stuff. The cost of this on happiness is staggering because it takes away time – something money can’t buy. This lifestyle leaves little time to spend with family and friends. It leaves little time for learning and adventure. It leaves little time to take care of our wellbeing. All of these things are core to our happiness and yet we’re doing ourselves a disservice by living the consumer lifestyle.

So what can we do about this to make our lives better? The first thing is to be aware of all these forces and how they act on us. The next step is to be mindful of any consumer product and ask important questions: Is this something I really need? Do I already own something that is sufficient? Will owning this product really make me happy and for how long? Are there great opportunity costs to get this product? Would the hours I spend working to pay for it be worth it? Or am I better off spending my time on something else?

I’ll admit that I used to buy things without really thinking about it. Watching The Story of Stuff really opened up my eyes to the mindlessness of the whole thing and how I was a slave to false desire. Since then, I’ve cut back on buying things. I’m understanding that it’s not necessary to own things. Through a more pragmatic approach, I’m living a happier life. You can too.

Obligation That Runs Two Ways

on Jul 12, 2010

At a recent large gathering of his member schools, the head of my martial arts organization discussed the importance of obligation. He gave a very simple example: that if you’re walking down the halls of your organization, what ever it may be, and see a piece of trash on the floor, you’re obligated to pick it up. This served as an analogy to all of us coming to that set of arduous training sessions. On the surface, it seemed like something that was not required – that it was just some extra event. It was in fact the opposite. We were actually obligated to be there. In a way, the head of the organization was preaching to the choir. Many of the martial artists present at this gathering at traveled a long way, some hundreds of miles. Still, it was a message that needed to be passed down to those not present. And the message says much about the very important relationship between an organization and its members.

Obligations run two ways. While a member is must have conscientiousness and take responsibility at any opportunity for their organization, their organizations in turn must provide a nurturing environment. It must treat its members with respect and acknowledge their contributions. The exchange of give and take must run both ways. As the organization takes what its members do for it, it must give back appropriately. Likewise, as members benefit (take) from the organization, they must be ready to give, even when it beyond regular responsibility (think: picking up the trash or traveling a long way for an event).

This applies beyond martial arts organizations, to the organizations where we work as well. Are you willing to put in that “extra” helpfulness when your organization would benefit from the dedication? Conversely, is this obligation really so? Does your organization provide a supporting environment? Does it recognize commitment? Does it reward loyalty in meaningful ways? Or does your organization require you to do more and more work without acknowledging your labors? If your organization is not treating you well, you certainly won’t heed the call to step up. There is no obligation.

So which kind of organization would you rather be a part of? Would you rather not have any obligations and have the organization respond in kind? Or would you prefer to be a part of nurturing environment, and be ready to fulfill the obligations it entails?

Being ‘Mindful’ with Technology

on May 21, 2010

A central theme of this blog is on using technology mindfully. But what does it mean to be mindful? is there a concrete process to this? In fact, there is: it’s the scientific process – the act of questioning things, in this case: technology. We should ask the following questions with any new technology, be it a gadget, a piece of software, or a technique.

What do we gain from using this technology?
Is it something that makes getting things done easier? Does it bring enjoyment? Is it a precursor to something bigger and better? We should be careful not to dismiss technology simply because it seems useless or trivial. Or, if anything, does it serve as a mental training exercise to a new way to think? Most of the time, technology does bring advancement, but this isn’t always the case.

What are the potential pitfalls of using this technology?
Does it make things more complicated? Does it damage social relationships? Can it be dangerous? Does it just push evolutionary buttons. Is it used to mislead? Is it expensive? It’s often difficult to see problems right off the bat. And sometimes even “obvious” problems are of little significance.

Do we, as a society, come off better off as a whole?
Who benefits from using the technology? Who has something to lose? Who’s pushing forward the technology? Who’s trying to dismiss it? We can discern much about the consequences by noting whose interests are at stake.

Still, things aren’t always black and white. A technology might bring great efficiency in some applications but cause problems in other situations, as noted in the case of processing food or with mobile phones. So it’s especially important that we continue to apply the scientific process, as technology emerges and as we use it. A last point is to never accept new things blindly.

Mobile Phones and Social Etiquette

on May 19, 2010

In discussing the benefits and pitfalls of adopting technology, one solid example is the mobile phone. These devices have become an essential part of our lives and just about everyone in modern society has one, including kids. Yet the social etiquette has been slow to follow.

All too often we see two people having a face-to-face conversation only to be interrupted by a ringing phone and the subsequent answer. How is it that someone calling the phone, potentially many miles away, has precedent over someone a few feet away? Well the calling individual doesn’t know this and that’s a big factor cause she may get offended if left unanswered. (Another factor involves our desire for social connection.) The social etiquette has been catching up though. It’s not uncommon for people to just silence the phone, or quickly answer to say “I’m busy now, I’ll call you back later”, or at the very least apologize to the live conversation partner: “I’m really sorry, this is an important call”. Social etiquette has also improved in callers understanding that people might be busy.

At the same time, newer technology has aided in improving social etiquette. Texting is [fundamentally] less intrusive than a voice call since it’s passive. It’s easier to check on a text later than to check on a voicemail [that was hopefully left] or end up playing phone tag. Still, texting brings about its own set of social etiquette issues. Over time, the etiquette will catch up, assuming texting isn’t replaced by another technology before then.

Yet another technology is reducing the need for calls or texts – location reporting services. Consider Google Latitude, which informs a set of your friends of where you are at all times. Since I began using Latitude, phone calls and instant messages (which I receive on my phone (I skipped over texting entirely)) from certain friends have dropped to half. Why? Because half the calls have to do with where I am and if I can hang out. Now, friends just use Latitude to see where I am and know if I’m off somewhere far away or busy at martial arts class.

As this technology gets adopted (and I assure you that it will), we’ll face more social etiquette issues. People don’t like being tracked and are reluctant to give up privacy. All sorts of social strains will crop up. But over time, people will adjust, and perhaps even newer technologies will come to the rescue!

Bonus Observation:
People have become more respectful in silencing their phones at proper times. If you recall the earlier part of the decade, whenever a phone would ring and cause a disturbance at some event (like a meeting), the speaker would stop to announce “please remember to silence your phones” as if people needed to be informed of what the social etiquette is. Nowadays, this intrusion is less common, and when it does happen, the speaker and pretty much everyone else ignore it.

Are You In Control of Your Actions?

on May 7, 2010

We like to think that we have free will – that we’re not like other animals which are governed by their biology. But if you think this, you’re gravely mistaken. We humans, as biological creatures, are under its rules. Our decisions are fueled by dopamine on rules built through evolution. You have two choices: refuse to acknowledge this and be a slave to your desires, or accept your underlying biology and learn to become wary of its unconscious influence. If you choose the latter, continue reading below.

Our psychological mechanisms often hide their purposes from consciousness and have strong influences on our behavior. We share many of these mechanisms with other animals. The feeling of hunger causes cravings, and of course there’s the sex drive. Some are pretty helpful, like the fight or flight response while others appear to do more harm than good, like in the case of nervousness.

There are uniquely human unconscious forces as well. As social creatures, we feel all sorts of social forces, such as morality (we know when things are right and wrong) or in-group/out-group forces (the need to fit in somewhere, or to despise outsiders). We literally feel these forces and they, without a doubt, affect and sometimes dominate our behaviors. Love (often characterized as a mental disease) and its less potent variants (such as lust) certainly affect our behavior beyond normal conscious will.

Our brains are incredible pieces of technology shaped by evolution. But are we using our built-in technology as it was optimized for? The world today is very different than what many mechanisms evolved for. Also, we have access to ways to abuse our technologies, such as drugs. Cigarettes work on the level of brain chemistry, as do most other drugs, including alcohol. Processed food is chock full of sugar and fat targeting evolved mechanisms to help us in times of starvation.

We should be mindful in how we use any technology, especially that which is built into us. Do you understand why you desire something? Are you responding in positive ways to unconscious mechanisms? Or are you merely pressing evolutionary buttons (or letting others do so for their gain)?

Doing What You Believe In

on May 4, 2010

What do you do? What do you believe in? Do you do what you believe in? Are you doing something you care for? Is it something that matters? We spend most of our waking hours working – work is part of who we are. Is this who you wish to be? These questions are neglected by many folks. They feel that a job is just a job. In some cases, their argument is valid, like if they don’t have other options and they need to support their families. But the many other people that do have a choice refuse to acknowledge it. They want to stay “safe” and have a job instead of pursuing a calling. Work is just work, yet work is life.

This shouldn’t just matter to individuals, but also to organizations (especially companies). Is your organization all about what it does or what it believes? Do its employees put in work in exchange for a paycheck? Or do they put in sweat and blood to support a cause you jointly believe it? Is your organization persuading potential consumers with what its product does? Or is it building a following around a genuine philosophy?

In a recent TED talk (embedded above), Simon Sinek discusses what inspires people (to work, to buy, and to support). He proposes a golden circle which consists of three concentric rings with a term within each: what, how, and why, from the outside to the inside respectively. He explains how so many companies, such as Gateway, start from the outside and go in, while others, like Apple, start from the inside instead, with why. So while Gateway, and most other computer companies, talk about what their products to, Apple makes products that exemplify why the company does what it does. (Sinek also tells similarly admirable stories behind The Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. so check out the whole talk.)

Sinek offers scientific support for the golden circle in the form of biology; he shows how our brains are structured in the same manner. The most recently evolved part, which is more rational, controls the what while a more ancient part, involved with decision making but not tied to communication, is more about the why. As much as you can try to persuade someone on strict rational grounds, the more emotional feeling part of the brain will have a strong say in decisions.

So look at yourself and your organization. Does your work matter? Does your product just do something or does it prove that you and your company believe in something your consumers believe in?

What Does Your Brain Think In? Words? Pictures? Motions?

on May 3, 2010

In an earlier post, I discussed how there appeared to be a tradeoff between social skills and other abilities, and how this was a consequence of people having different kinds of minds, as Temple Grandin described in her TED talk. Temple also discusses how people differ in the internal mechanism by which they process and understand the world. For her own self, she described how she thought in pictures and how that gave her the ability run like virtual simulation models in her head. While these were some pretty extraordinary capabilities, she experienced tradeoffs – for example, she was terrible at algebra, a more abstract discipline.

At the same time, we see that some people think more verbally (in fact, there was strong myth that language was essential for complex thought – the myth led to prejudice of deaf people). These people are probably very good at expressing themselves and communicating in general. They may very well be the more social (and perhaps less geeky) type.

Coming back to thinking in ways beyond language: consider non-human animals. They most certainly don’t think in words, but they have their own extraordinary capabilities. Temple Grandin gives an example of the dog sniffing the fire hydrant – he knows who was there, when, and what to make of that information. Or consider a cheetah running across the plains at 60mph, amazingly avoiding rocks and controlling movement masterfully.

For many years, I’ve deeply thought about the way my own mind processes the world. I know for sure that I don’t quite think in words. It’s as if my mind interprets things in some higher-level manner and puts together a model like a puzzle. While this means I have a really powerful and deep way to understand things, I’m left with great difficulty to explain what’s on my mind. I can’t easily put the model or thoughts into words.

This thinking style – modeling – might give clues to a connection with cheetah example. Friends know me as being outrageous when it comes to physical activity. [I don’t mean to gloat but] I’m considered an incredible inline skater and fantastic martial artist. Fellow skaters and and martial artists are impressed with the technical sophistication behind my activity. They say that I make it look so simple and easy, though they understand the sheer complexity behind my abilities. This is very much the same skillfulness of a non-human animals’ physical prowess. Interestingly enough, when I’m learning a new martial arts technique or sequence, I need to build a mental model before trying it out. If I don’t have this opportunity (it does take a bit more time), I fail terribly at executing the move. However, if I can put it together in my head, it comes out beautifully.

Is my style of processing the world, seemingly by feel, its own category; something more kinesthetic? Or is it just another manner of visual thinking as Temple Grandin discusses? I’m inclined to think it’s more a form of the latter since visual thinking also entails motion. Either way, I know what my advantage is so I leverage that to learn better. I avoid getting frustrated in the beginning because I understand the need to get a model down.

This virtual modeling thinking works beyond physical activity. It is in a way an engineering mind because it allows one to build something mentally before building it for real. This could account for my infatuation of creating things, between computer programs to theories of human behavior. As great as this is, it does come with tradeoffs, often involving communication or social skills. It’s important to understand that no mind can have it all. Acknowledge the weaknesses and manage them. More on that in a future post.

There’s still so much to ponder regarding the mechanisms by which our minds work. Still, it seems things are becoming clearer and are mapping onto the real world. The unique abilities of different minds are a strong asset when working together.

How Being Nervous Messes You Up

on Apr 20, 2010

So perhaps you’re giving some sort of presentation. People are watching you. And all you can think about is how you’re doing and what these people think. And of course, how you can avoid messing up. But it happens, inevitably. Then you get more nervous. And then you make even more mistakes.

It’s all about brain resources – something always in limited supply. Toss in the gas-guzzling behemoth of managing social interaction, and you’ve got very little left to work with. So if your focus is on what others are thinking, then you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re throwing away important brain cycles to monitor social information when you really need to put everything into the task at hand.

An interesting reversed condition also occurs – where social processing is sacrificed for something more taxing, like intense spacial processing. This is something I experience regularly when inline skating at a decent speed, and I’ve heard many cyclists express experiencing the same phenomenon. Essentially, we fail to recognize people we know when moving fast. It isn’t so much the moving fast part that does it. It’s more that we’re trying to process every potential obstacle to avoid disaster. So we see people as objects. Moving objects with trajectories that we must calculate to proceed safely. At that level, recognizing objects as friends is not worth the brain resources.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous under the sight of others, put that thought away (I know, easier said than done) and just focus solely on what you’re doing. And if that friend on wheels whizzes by without saying hi, don’t be offended because his brain is just automatically preoccupied with cruising safely. Keep in mind that our brains and minds are very sophisticated technologies that do have limits. Understanding those limits will let us best use your heads.