Inventor Ray Kurzweil expects people to live forever. Such an application of technology has vast moral implications for the future. Kurzweil is one of the provocative thinkers that students encountered in this unit on the role of technology in society.
In my last blog entry students in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class responded to the recent book The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. This blog entry shares a follow-up mini-unit that allowed them to further explore the writings of leading thinkers on the topic of technology and its impact on present-day and future society.
In the question above commentator Charles Eisenstein asks how can we use technology as a means of healing our society rather than as a force of fragmentation. In this concluding activity for a unit on the impact of technology on society, I asked students to address a variant of this question: what is the role of technology in creating a flourishing society in the 21st century? In essence, we are debating how technology can be used to enhance rather than diminish our humanity.
I handed out the assignment on a Tuesday. Students had the next class period to prepare, and then the speeches began the following Monday. Here is the assignment sheet:
“Each student will investigate a leading thinker and cultural critic about their views of how best to use technology to enhance society in the future.
Next Monday and Wednesday you will:
- deliver a 3-minute speech about the topic.
- engage in an in-character discussion about the role of technology in our future.
List of characters:
- Charles Eisenstein
- Peter Diamandis
- Leslie Thiele
- Otto Scharmer (and/or Peter Senge)
- Alvin Toffler:
- Neil Postman
- Naomi Klein
- Derrick Jensen
- Ken Wilber
- Ray Kurzweil
- Gretchen Rubin
- Steven Pinker
- Bill Plotkin
- Malidoma Some
- Helena Norberg-Hodge
- Peter Singer
- Thomas Berry
- Joseph Chilton Pearce
- Michael Zey
- Francis Lapp-Moore
- Manfred Max-Neef
- Proper understanding of and sufficient depth in explaining your character’s view on technology.
- Deliver an engaging speech
- Use of a few key pictures to accompany your speech.
- Actively listen and participate in the debate.
- Keep to the 3-minute time limit.”
The speeches and debate ended up taking about four class periods rather than two. Not only did the Q & A period take more time than I had anticipated, a very positive development, but I also decided to include a mini-lesson on Spiral Dynamics to explain Ken Wilber’s “Mean Green Meme” construct. Overall, I was quite pleased with students’ ability to convey the essential concepts of these thinkers, and to then engage in thoughtful, and at times playful, dialogue about the issues.
Final Unit Assignment
I then introduced the final assignment in this unit:
“On Thursday, September 25, you will write an essay answering this question for yourself: What fundamental principle/principles and practices guide your thinking about how we can best use technology to create a flourishing society in the 21st century? Draw upon at least three of the thinkers that we have discussed in this debate to support your answers.”
Having spent about a month considering the role of technology in society from multiple vantage points, I wanted to conclude this unit with their own personal formulation of the key principles and practices that they have come to adopt through their study.
In order to prepare for this in-class writing, I asked students to write a 5-10 line summary of their character’s answer to this question about technology. I also requested that they include a number of key quotes from their character. Below are the students’ summaries and quotes on their particular character that they played in the debate
- Michael Zey (Rohan)
Through my proposed process of vitalization, it’s evident that technology is obviously something that needs to be harnessed and used to its full capability. Without technology, we won’t be able to unite our race culturally, physically, and develop a universal mindset. We won’t be able to craft lands the way we want to, and reach out into the cosmos to conquer new, previously unexplored planets. We won’t be able to modify our bodies to withstand harsh climates that other planets might experience; to live longer than a century… Finally, without technology, we won’t be able to harness the power of nanotechnology to make ourselves invincible, able to regenerate and cure disease in the matter of seconds. Without technology in the 21st century and in the centuries to come, we’d be lost, and we’d die off as a race. We can’t afford to give it up or to even take time to step back and analyze the pros and cons of utilizing tech; we have to rush forward and keep on maximizing innovation. That’s the only way we’ll ever truly take over this universe.
“We are entering a human future, in which the very shape and direction of all aspects of the universe will be deeply influenced by the actions of the human race and its descendants.”
“Certainly, the details of humanity’s current efforts to achieve vitalization as it enters the twenty-first century are nearly as exciting as the vision of our destiny itself.”
“Vitalization is the primary force shaping human behavior. However, in order to pursue vitalization successfully, the human species must master four other forces, what I label the ‘building blocks of vitalization.’”
- Malidoma Some (Ivy)
In using and defining “technology”, we must not disregard the spirit. The solution to the problems of the 21st century lies in adopting techniques that involve the dynamic interaction between matter and spirit—indigenous forms of technology— in addition to modern, industrial forms. Efficient and seemingly mystical to Westerners, indigenous technologies open gateway between the material and spiritual worlds through means such as herbal medicine, pottery, farming, and other rituals. These practices enhance the wellbeing of individuals and communities because they harness power from the Spiritual world, work without consuming much material resources, and thus work in harmony with nature’s design and purposes. What we need to understand is that material advancement and convenience, which modern technology provides, are not the only things we seek. Personal health, communion, a mutually beneficial relationship with nature, and a sense of life purpose are also fundamental human needs that technology should aim to fulfill.
“I must not discount the importance of things material in the Western culture, or even in the indigenous culture. People’s attraction to material things is proportional to their thirst for the source from which the things come” (Healing Wisdom of Africa, 62).
“To indigenous people, matter is the skin of Spirit, a permeable boundary between the dimensions” (63).
“A harmonious relationship between Spirit and technology begins with trust in one’s vision…what is commonly regarded as fantasy is not impossible. Our vision is the starting point of a primal technological power, which is the ability to manifest, to make Spirit real in material form” (66).
- Gretchen Rubin (Jeffrey)
“The days are long, but the years are short.” One of the key principles that guide my thinking about how we can best use technology is the idea that time is passing ever so quickly. Especially with technology, we have tried to become more and more efficient, and in doing so, our lives have become less meaningful. In order to create a flourishing society in the 21st century, we have to realize that technology often sucks away our time, and thus we must adapt and find a way to unplug from technology every once and a while, to appreciate the little things in our lives that really matter. (“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”) Another principle that is key to understand is that technology is inevitable. There is no realistic means of removing technology, as we will always create more and better technology as a society. With this principle in mind, we thus also realize that we must not remove technology or avoid technology, but instead use technology in a manner where we are still aware of our surroundings and the quickly passing time. This way, we can draw from the positives of technology while avoiding the negatives.
- Naomi Klein (Jacque)
The story of power is mankind’s greatest weakness. “Our society is architecturally built by stories of supremacy over others. The narrative of apocalypse and salvation, the narrative of manifest destiny.” It is this underlying assumption of limitlessness that allows us to take reckless risks in advancing our society. This is what we tell ourselves is our real master-narrative: however often we mess up, there will always be more resources at our disposal. However, this fault in our story because mother nature does have limits. “We badly need some new stories. We need stories that have different kinds of heroes willing to take different kinds of risks — risks that confront recklessness head on, that put the precautionary principle into practice, even if that means through direct action.” The moral of our story needs to have the value of precaution to remind us that the life and the earth we were given are too precious for any profit.
“Our society is architecturally built by stories of supremacy over others. The narrative of apocalypse and salvation, the narrative of manifest destiny.”
“This is how civilizations commit suicide, by slamming their foot on the accelerator at the exact moment when they should be putting on the brakes.”
“We badly need some new stories. We need stories that have different kinds of heroes willing to take different kinds of risks — risks that confront recklessness head on, that put the precautionary principle into practice, even if that means through direct action.”
- Bill Plotkin (Nicholas Ho)
Nature has provided us with essentially everything we need to be human. Our ultimate goal as humans is to acquire all 4 facets of wholeness within a lifetime. By doing so, one would have cultivated a whole mind and become fully human. However, mainstream western culture, which embraces technology in our current generation, suppresses the cultivation of the 4 facets of the self. This is because the embodied self is incompatible with the egocentric, preoccupied ways of life. I am not against the progress of technology, however it is more important that we revive the sense of what it is to be human, to celebrate our place within the Earth community from which we have come.
- Ken Wilber (Angela)
This is where the problem lies; the exterior collective group is changing, both in a good and bad way. We have the system provided and given to us. However, we don’t have enough of our human consciousness to help us transcend. In other words, we don’t have enough of our “truthfulness”, “inner-self”, or “values” to further enable the functionally fit system. In our world today, the Internet creates a disembodied space where one can lose its conscious ability to differentiate the grounding into physical and bodily reality. We’re not actually there because it separates our mind and body, but depending on how we use it, we can fit all those together to create and physical and social system.
|Q1 = Inner Self (personal values)
Semester and final exam:
|Q2 = Outer Self (personal actions)
|Q3 = Collective interior
(group values)Relationships in class; Asian vs. Western cultural identity; 3rd culture kids, “in Action” culture;Conversations with family& friends.
|Q4 = Collective exterior (group systems)
Political systems; globalization; the environment; effecting change in structures.
“In other words, the real problem is not exterior. The real problem is interior.”
“In fact, at this point in history, the most radical, pervasive, and earth-shaking transformation would occur simply if everybody truly evolved to a mature, rational, and responsible ego, capable of freely participating in the open exchange of mutual self-esteem.. There is the ‘edge of history.’ There would be a real New Age.”
“The truth will not necessarily set you free, but truthfulness will.”
- Peter Diamandis
“There is nothing more important than survival.”
“Technology does not necessarily mean luxury, it means possibility.”
- Charles Eisenstein (see Additional Resource #2 below)
- Helena Norberg-Hodge (Crystal)
Currently, Ladakh has been greatly affected by technology. Ladakh used to be a peaceful civilization that was cut off from the rest of the world. However, they were doing fine. Once tourists and other travellers went to Ladakh, though, the Ladakhi people began to view themselves differently and instead of focusing on what they already had, they began saying to other tourists “`Oh, if you could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor.'” Previously the Ladakhi people’s motto would be “tungbos zabos” meaning, enough to drink, enough to eat. Now, phrases such as “development is essential; in the past we couldn’t manage, we didn’t have enough” are heard more often.
“In terms of quality of life, the Ladakhis do rather better than one would expect from a non-industrial society. There is a high level of co-operation between all members of the society, with little distinction between rich and poor, male and female, old and young.” → This was how they lived before they were introduced to modern technology.
“It is tragic to see young people starting to reject their culture as primitive and filthy.”
“The impact on the young is disastrous; they suddenly feel that their parents and grandparents must be stupid to be working and getting dirty, when everyone else is having such a good time – spending vast quantities of money travelling and not working.”
10. Neil Postman (Michelle)
Our current society is a technopoly where the primary goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, and that technical calculation is superior to human judgment. Although technology brings benefits, it also undos certain aspects in our culture. Radical technologies creates new definitions for terms instead of creating new terms without us being fully aware. In a technopoly, the culture is controlled by technology. A consequence of this is the creation of knowledge monopolies which consists of “elite groups” who can understand and utilize the technology. This leads to the manipulation of the masses who are prone to believe in the ‘wisdom’ of technology. One solution to counter this is to give students an education in the history, social effects and psychological issues of technology, so that they become adults who use technology rather than be used by it.
“The technopoly story is progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost. It doesn’t have moral centre. It puts it its place efficiency, interest and economic advance, and promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells instead a life of skills, technological expertise, ecstasy of consumption. The purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing technopoly.”
“Technopoly is the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes orders from technology. One way of defining technopoly is “what happens to a society when defenses against information glut have broken down”. A society needs to remove or protect from information, like an organism protects itself from unwanted cell growth.
“Because if you don’t teach the history of what we once knew about biology or economics or even mathematics, then learning or information becomes a kind of consumer product. Facts become like something you’re selling. I think what we want here is for the young to understand that what we think we know at any given time, first of all, is a product of what we once thought we knew. It comes from someplace and that in the future, it will itself change. So the idea is for a teacher to try to show the young that learning is an historical process and that anything that we think we know now will probably be modified in the future. History is wonderfully good for this. History is almost the best consciousness-raising subject that we have available for that.”
11. Ray Kurzweil (Nick)
The technological intelligence of the future will allow us to transcend humanity. We will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological components. It will be integrated into our bodies, our environment and allow us overcome problems from pollution, poverty, disease and to escape death. This tech will essentially turn us into superhumans. In order for us to create a flourishing society in the 21 century, we must realize and accept the endless potential of technology. Want to live forever? No problem. Want to cure 80% of diseases by providing everyone with fresh water? Simple. Want endless supplies of inexpensive energy? Technology of the future will be the solution to these problems and it is inevitable.
“You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era.”
“Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity. We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings.”
“What we spend our time on is probably the most important decision we make.”
“Once we have inexpensive energy, we can readily and inexpensively convert the vast amount of dirty and salinated water we have on the planet to usable water.”
“People say we’re running out of energy. That’s only true if we stick with these old 19th century technologies. We are awash in energy from the sunlight.”
12. Derrick Jensen (Brian)
Technology can be equated as human progress. In reality, humanity’s vision of technological progress is clouded by the undeniable benefits without consideration of its repercussions, especially towards nature. This is a direct result of human greed and selfishness. To reverse the adverse effects of technology, people have to gain a wholesome view of how certain technology influences nature. Maybe to the point where we must eliminate technology to be in balance with the natural world, as we have stepped beyond its boundaries.
“To reverse the effects of civilization would destroy the dreams of a lot of people. There’s no way around it. We can talk all we want about sustainability, but there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter that these people’s dreams are based on, embedded in, intertwined with, and formed by an inherently destructive economic and social system. Their dreams are still their dreams. What right do I — or does anyone else — have to destroy them. At the same time, what right do they have to destroy the world?”
13. Alvin Toffler (Skye)
The use of technology has allowed our generation to advance in an indescribable rate. With technology, humanity has the power of moving forward and moreover becoming united as a whole. In my early years of research, I forecasted things such as satellites being launched into space, and today, this has been accomplished. In addition to this, we are on the merge of building satellites the size of our phones, ready to be released in the coming years. This is fantastic and is just one of the many examples which show how fast our society is moving forward. It seems that though many great things come with technology, there is a downside to it as well. In some ways technology is breaking us apart. When I say this, I am specifically talking about our incapability to cope with change. This intolerance leads to many negative factors such as increase in stress levels, higher rates of divorce and more. In order to control this, we must incorporate futurism into our curricula to better prepare the upcoming generation for change.
“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources.”
“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.”
14. Noam Chomsky (Nathalie)
There has been a substantial growth in technology, but the technological changes now haven’t been as significant as the technological changes before. For example, the change from the telephone to email isn’t as significant as the change from the pony express or a ship to the telegraph. The time cut down in communication from that was remarkable. In the aspect of education, the role of technology is actually neutral. The Internet is an extremely valuable tool if you know what you’re looking for; it can direct you onto the right path. Without any kind of structure or objective in your search, the Internet isn’t really of much help.
“A hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or use it to torture someone…a hammer can do either.”
Additional Resource #1: Leslie Thiele
On the final day before the in-class writing, I introduced three additional resources that I thought might be helpful to them as they consider formulating their theses for the essay.
The first resource I shared was a book by Leslie Thiele, political science professor at the University of Florida, entitled Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World (2011). The premise of the book is that the study of various disciplines – ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics and metaphysics – would be enacted and applied in new and more sustainable ways if the ontological starting point was that the biosphere is interconnected and interpenetrating.
In Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch Thiele argues that the first law of ecology is that “we can never do merely one thing.” Everything we do follows the law of unintended consequences. In trying to solve one problem, we may create a Pandora’s box of many more. “All technology has the Midas touch” in that while I may solve the one problem it wasn’t intended for (e.g., gaining wealth), it also often causes a host of problems. Because technology intends to solve one specific problem, and discounts all of the unintended consequences, Thiel posits that “this singular objective makes technology an imperial force.”
Thiel’s solution is to solve for pattern, to adopt technologies that don’t just solve one problem, but “sustain a web of relations” (107) and does not create new problems. To solve any one problem, we have to take into account the whole. Thiele draws upon a phrase from Wendell Berry – “solving for pattern” – to explain how we should approach problems in an interconnected world. He explains:
“Bad technological solutions, owing to ignorance or disregard of the larger networks or patterns that support them, prove destructive of patterns . . . . Good solutions, in contrast, are attentive to and reinforcing of the relationships and networks that support them . . . . Rather than attempting to solve a perceived problem with a technological quick fix – an attempt that inevitably produces unintended and generally pernicious consequences – Berry asks us to approach every problem as a symptom of a system that is failing to satisfy the needs of its constituents. Any attempt to satisfy these needs must simultaneously strengthen the network of relationships that characterize the broader system or community (107-108).”
The phrase “solving for pattern” is a handy shorthand phrase describing Thiel’s answer to how society can employ technology for the greater good of society.
In chapter 3 Thiele presents a number of historical examples of how technological fixes did more harm than good. He finishes the chapter with Wikipedia, which he calls an appropriate technology. Below are student notes about many of the issues Thiele discusses.
- Arsenic Wells in Bangladesh (96)
- until 1970s water in Bangladesh came from ponds, lakes
- these sources of water
- contaminated with sewage waste, unleashing harmful bacteria
- many deaths
- unicef came into play by drilling deep into the water, to provide untouched aquatics
- people didn’t know these waters contained arsenic poisoning
- this will go on forever, for decades to come
- CFCs and the Ozone Layer (97-98)
- Widely used as refrigerants during 1920s
- Employed as cleaning solvents and propellants
- Side effects:
- When largely inert gas released into air → does not break down, slowly migrated up to the stratosphere
- Destroyer of ozone molecules and a potent greenhouse gas
- Are second only to CO2 among greenhouse gases in terms of contribution to climate change
- Ozone shields the biosphere from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation
- Without stratospheric ozone, life as we know it would not exist on earth
- The thinning of ozone layer caused by CFCs allows higher levels of UV light to penetrate to the planet’s surface
- Skin cancer
- Eye cataracts
- Immune deficiencies
- Affects terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals
- Green Revolution (98-99)
- Some argue good, but had harmful side effects as well (that might be worse than the good)
- 1940s to 1970s
- High-yielding, disease-resistant crops
- Spared 1 billion people from starvation
- But irrigation has depleted aquifers
- Increased use of fertilizer – nitrogen is thus leaked into water supplies
- Overpopulation in developing nations was exacerbated by the Green revolution
- Aswan Dam in Egypt (99)
- Controlled flooding, produced electricity, and increased water available for agriculture
- Displaced 90000 people
- 130 millions tons of silt and soil per year lost – essential to crops in the region
- Farmers thus have to allocate money towards fertilizers
- Sardine population virtually eliminated
- Loss of silt means loss of nitrates and phosphates, hence phytoplankton bloom
- Ecological web essentially collapsed
- Due to salinization, the Nile valley is now unsuitable for farming
- Dynamite (101-102)
- 1866; Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel mixed nitroglycerin with silica, which resulted in the formation of dynamite
- Initially used to destroy rock, by the end of the decade, dynamite was used to destroy men
- Late 1800s; US government went into the “dynamite gun” business
- Building of guns that fire dynamite-filled shells at their targets
- In his last will, Nobel used his wealth to establish the Nobel Prize
- Awards people “who have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”
- Technology allows us to fashion amazing tools, but it doesn’t determine how these tools would be used
- Medicine for high cholesterol (108)
- using drugs to offset rich diets and low exercise treat only the symptoms but not the causes of the problem
- dangerous side effects of synthetic drugs
- other health problems arising from the same causes may appear (diabetes)
- unhealthy habits continue and may worsen
- another example: using caffeine to stimulate mental alertness, a quicker approach as compared to sleep and exercise, but doesn’t consider the intricacies of the “pattern”, or “web of relations” that is our mind and body
- Terminator seeds (120-121)
- Multinational corporations like Monsanto have created seeds that kill themselves. This guarantees that farmers will need to buy seeds from Monsanto.
- Geoengineering attempts to manage climate change (119)
- Shooting sulfur into the atmosphere will only solve a temporary problem but will cause more problems for our earth.
- No doubt we have to reduce carbon emissions but doing that with political approval, it would be hard to convince people from not using carbon based fossil fuels
- We need to find a solution to reduce carbon emissions as a collective so that we can consider all the precautions.
- Wikipedia (an appropriate technology) (115-6)
- “Alexandrian Library” – Intention of making ALL of world’s knowledge available to everyone
- 10 million articles (number growing daily) edited by 75000 contributors in 253 languages, easily accessible to a wide audience
- open source, collaboratively produced but with shortcomings
- older well-established articles → accurate, balanced, well-edited
- newer entries lack proper citations, falsehoods, misinformation, vandalism (may go undetected and not deleted until months after)
- does not require sophisticated or expensive instruments
- low impact on physical environment (compared to updating and printing physical encyclopedia copies)
- safe to fail (can be easily removed if there is an easier method or sharing knowledge)
- benefits community while increased interaction between members without disrupting social and economic networks–> allows community to be sustained
- Issues with Wikipedia
- People get too dependent on Wikipedia; don’t use other sources
- If people make mistakes, it may go undetected for months
Additional Resource #2: Charles Eisenstein
According to Eisenstein, culture is the human solution for getting along, and technology is the means by which we shape the environment to our benefit. However, the emergence of two corresponding terms in the last one hundred years, genocide and ecocide, has become a clarion call for us to re-consider the underpinnings of the whole modernization program. The fundamental error, Eisenstein argues, is that “we have defined ourselves . . . as discrete subjects separate from each other and separate from the world around us” (p. xvii). Drawing on the Tower of Babel imagery, The Ascent of Humanity explains how in a myriad of ways from the birth of agriculture onward civilization has moved further away from an original harmony into an Age of Separation, currently at its apogee. A new definition of self needs to be re-born in order for us to create cultures and institutions that can once again live compatibly with the cosmos.
This quote summaries his view on technology:
“Don’t worry – I’m not going to pin my optimism on the hope that some miracle technology is going to save us. If it were up to technology to save us, it already would have. We have long possessed the technologies to live abundantly and sustainably on this planet, but we have used them to other ends . . . No new technologies are necessary. However, another kind of miracle is necessary to redeem the promise of existing technologies: a social or political miracle” (The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, 90-91)
“Anxiety and boredom flow from a common confluence of sources. Technology has separated us from each other, from nature, and from ourselves, inflicting the interior wound of separation” (The Ascent of Humanity, p. 35)
Additional Resource #3: John Prendergast
As a practical example, I included the short video clip below about conflict minerals. The video explains that the Congo is one of the most dangerous places on the planet, a plight that is exacerbated by the global demand for minerals in computers and cellphones. Scholar-activist John Prendergast explains the situation. As a recent purchaser of my first smartphone, I explained that at least I am aware that my acquisition has social ramifications across the globe.
In order to educate students for their future, the study of technology needs to be included in school curricula. The first part of our study looked at Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’ book The App Generation concerning technology’s impact on youth culture. The movie, “Disconnect,” was also used to explore the fears surrounding technology. This blog entry detailed the second part of the unit, focusing on the views of scholars and activists across the ideological spectrum regarding the role of technology in modern society. The key activity was a role-play, which allowed students to engage in a serious topic in an imaginative and entertaining way. The unit concluded with an in-class writing in which students pulled together all that they had learned, arguing for principles and practices that they plan to adopt concerning the role of technology in building healthy societies in the future.