Problems of the Inquiring (or Technological) Mind

Well it has been a long while since I last posted here, and for that please accept my apologies, but there have been good reasons. I have been re-assessing life somewhat. I am hesitant to call it a mid-life crisis, since it feels like it has been happening for most of my life!

One of the problems of having an inquiring mind, a curious mind, an analytical mind, is that you tend to deconstruct everything, i.e. you pull it apart. Sometimes there need to be boundaries as to what you will and what you will not pull apart. I must confess I have had problems with where to place those boundaries. And I think I am not alone in this. As I have mentioned before, the puzzle becomes the thing ,and if you have an analytical bent, you can easily forget why you wanted to solve the puzzle in the first place, or maybe sometimes you don’t even know, which means you are usually doing it just for fun.

The impulse to re-assess has come from a number of directions and has a lot to do with a dawning realisation about just how damaging this sort of mind can be.

Firstly has been my attendance at a Science conference in Stourbridge on a rainy weekend in late February (see footnote 1); secondly I have recently started reading what I am finding an inspiring management book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer (see footnote 2); and thirdly an article recommended by a friend about a breathtaking display of technological hubris by neurology professor, Henry Markram at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne (see footnote 3).

So what on earth is it that pulls all these threads together and is giving me such a hard time? Well… deep breath… I have been finding it harder and harder not to worry about various environmental concerns and bury my head in the technological sand, saying that we will be able to find solutions to the issues coming our way. A tipping point was when I watched a TV program about James Lovelock originally broadcast in April 2010 (Episode 2 of the “Beautiful Minds” series). Here is a man who is a great polymath and a scientist who is quite happy to be on the outside of the mainstream, pointing out the inherent problems of working within mainstream science at this time.

These different threads have led me to the point where I feel very strongly that there are not just limits implicit in the current mode of thought we have, but that there is a fundamental flaw that is causing wide scale havoc with our environment.

Favourite Metaphors, Quotes and Insights
Thanks to the minds of various giants I like to think I am able to stand on their shoulders and have assembled here some of my favourite thoughts from them that, together, encapsulate some of what I am going on about.

J.W. Goethe: Life is a Conversation. Ah yes, the wonderful idea of Delicate Empiricism.

David Bohm: Thought as a System which creates the world and then says “I didn’t do it!”. So our collective thought is creating organisations which are prisons, and then we can blame the “system” for all the problems, which, remember, we have created.

Rudolf Steiner: The problems of Dualism and the terrific difficulty of getting to Monism (which I link to a holistic way of seeing), though Henri Bortoft helps…

Henri Bortoft: We cannot know the whole in the same way as we know a thing.
This is worth more words here: The whole is not a thing. The way to the whole is through the parts. It is not to be encountered by stepping back and taking an overview. The whole is to be encountered by stepping into, and passing through, the parts.

Couple these ideas with the realisation from my own experience of how difficult it is to recruit competent, thoughtful, software developers and perhaps you can see why I am going through a rather angst-ridden period.

So I have now come to realise that we must must must change the way we collectively think. Obviously this requires us to individually be more clear in our own thought, but there are issues of social technique that we need to learn, which I believe are key to how we turn this around. Now here is a kicker, there is a major link with the whole Risk Averse rant I usually bore friends with. The trouble with all this tech is that there is a risk of letting it do the thinking for us.

My favourite example is the use of a satnav. I hate using a satnav that is telling me which way to turn. I once tested one and found its route choice to be flawed at best. No. I will choose the route thank you very much, and I will use the machine as a very useful map follower which traces where I am on the map. This is exactly what pilots are recommended to do when flying with a GPS. This is a prime of example of how to consciously use the technology.

So… the link to risk aversion. Well if you do not consciously use the technology, you stop thinking. This is comfortable, but in the end, dangerous. It is also very convenient for any government. Since to have a population who are quite willing to follow orders is just fine by them. Risk aversion also puts you in a comfort zone. Again this means you stop thinking. Which is of course tied up with existence :-), as Descartes realised:

I think therefore I am…

And thats enough for now.
See you soon.
Thanks for reading.

1: This was Science from an anthroposophical perspective (the Steiner lot if you don’t know what the word means). I co-presented one session about the “Conscious use of technology”. The conference in general was a positive experience that has started me tentatively re-approaching some of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. In preparation I read Paul Emberson’s book called “From Gondishapur to Silicon Valley” which I found a difficult read as I felt it was rather too evangelical about just how nasty our present computer technology is. In recent days I have come to have a better view of this, but more about that in a later post.

I have found that, so far, the book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer is an inspiring read. It is early days as yet since I am about one third of the way through, but his insights from a personal perspective stop it being a dry book, for me at least, and I can relate to a lot of what is being said. His drive is to get to understand why we carry on doing things that are so destructive, and don’t seem to be able to change the results.

A close friend sent me a link to an article in the Daily Mail about Prof Henry Markram trying to make a conscious computer system. As far as I can see this is all an effort to get some more funding and investment. His approach is breathtakingly short sighted and is yet another instance, to me, of someone playing with their toys.

The Path of Technological Development – A quick overview of recent history

Lets start with some overview of the love affair that the human race seems to have with technology.

In the 30 or so years I have been working in the profession, computers have moved from being the province of nerds to now being a fashion item. And, yes, I was a spotty faced geek with glasses spending all hours in front of a keyboard playing some of the early computer games like Dungeons and Dragons – “Get in bucket. Drop bottle. Pick up matches” – usually eliciting the response from the game – “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Those games did not need much computing power. Now if you have a Smartphone, it has more power than many desktop PCs of the 90s.

But the question that has puzzled me is why there has been an inordinate amount of time, money but above all, human energy invested in developing computer software. Where I work, for example, there have been over 2 person centuries of effort expended in writing the software, which now stands at over 16 million lines of software, if not more. This is not out of the ordinary in industry.

Information technology is just the latest result of a continuum of technological development stretching from thousands of years ago. However it has a special attribute which I will come to later.

As with the movie character Shrek, even though he didn’t like being compared to an onion, there are a number of levels here:

The Development of Craftsmanship
Humans are consummate toolmakers and the computer is the latest in a long line of inventions that have given us more power to predict and control our environment. However, every tool has two sides, just like the proverbial two-edged sword. On the plus side a good tool amplifies our capacities. The down side that is usually forgotten is that any tool will place obstacles in our path which we must overcome by training ourselves to use it properly. Eventually, with effort, we develop more skill and a good tool becomes transparent to us as we use it. This has resulted in the development of craftsmanship and the professions.

The Development of Automation
If we look at the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to help speed the construction of the Model T car. This was a major change in the way work was carried out and was met by strong opposition. He doubled the pay of his employees, segregated the work, yet stayed profitable because he was able to triple the running speed of the assembly line (see Shop Class as Soulcraft reference). This was the beginning of a massive development towards more automation in the workplace. Automation is about defining sets of rules to follow, and this can be done with some non-physical work, culminating in the current so called Expert Systems. For example I would expect the legal profession to see quite a few changes in this area in the years ahead.

The Development of Software
And so we come to software development. Why do I consider it to have a separate place from the automation of other work? With software programming the rules of work are almost impossible to pin down. Software is always written in an unambiguous machine-friendly language, and requires a lot of human effort create, since we have to use the ambiguous human languages to define what we want done. Now to automate software development, which uses a language, you have to… you guessed it… use another language. This means that to improve software development you have to do even more software development! With computing this has been the story so far with many new languages appearing every year, and it does not look like slowing down.

And so…
In terms of tool use and development, we have reached the top of a pyramid, moving up from physical work to thought work. We can automate repetitive physical work by using our thinking. But to automate repetitive thinking, we can only do more thinking, but at a higher-level. Of course we need to recognise that we are talking about the more utilitarian mode of thought here, but of course, as you might expect, the view of the path starts to get murky.

More to follow…

“Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew B Crawford, Penguin.