Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Technology as a Means of Control

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Reflective]

I wrote about the perils of technology in one of my earliest blog posts where I talked about how technological advances have left much destruction in their wake and how some of the newer technologies being proposed today are targeted at cleaning up the mess left behind by earlier technologies. But what is technology really?

I have come to think of Technology as a means of control. This isn't how I used to think of it. Nothing in my life, neither my education nor my career, neither my parents nor my teachers, neither the television nor the newspapers prepared me to think of technology this way. The word "technology" almost always had a positive ring to it. It often goes together with and is placed right next to other words of similar positive connotations like progress, development and advancement. Technological achievements are correlated with developed countries, prosperous societies and modern cultures. Conversely, the lack of technological sophistication goes together with third world countries, primitive societies and cultures and "backwardness" and often carries with it a certain stigma. It's not so easy to view technology in a different light than what has been presented to us all our lives.

The word "technology" conjures up images of freeways, fancy gadgets and Facebook and makes it hard to think of it in terms of control. Perhaps I should use different terminology but that would keep us from seeing technology for what it really is: the ability to control nature or the ability to control one's own circumstances. There is really no distinction between controlling nature and controlling our own circumstances because human beings are very much part of nature despite their inclination to think otherwise. Our circumstances are natural in so far as the human condition is natural. Controlling our circumstances amounts to controlling nature. After I began seeing technology this way, it became more and more evident over time that the manifestations of technology that I was coming across on a daily basis (the latest breakthroughs in genetic engineering, nano technology, medicine and robotics) have an underlying motivation of control.

When human beings settled into the first agricultural villages, technologies of various kinds had helped us to, initially, adapt to settled life (coming from thousands of years of nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles), and later, to alter our environment and thrive in it. As normal as that sounds, it points to a necessity and even a certain craving for control over our surroundings, our environment, the ecology that we're an integral part of and our very human condition. This isn't a value judgment but an observation on what has happened and what continues to happen. The need for control has implications on all facets of life and even touches upon existential questions. Control goes hand in hand with fear because it's fear in a variety of forms that discourages us from going with the flow and encourages us to take control of circumstances.

My friend, Sven, has written a thoughtful article on our relationship with technology that underscores some of these aspects that are not always obvious.

We live in highly predictable artificial environments. Modern technology relies on itself to provide itself a certain minimum amount of predictability without which it cannot function effectively. The Internet wouldn't be nearly as useful or ubiquitous without reliable, always-on electricity in place, for example. In the same vein, modern technology habituates us into expecting more predictability in our lives. There's little room for serendipity and chance encounters in a life dependent on the smartphone and other gadgets that have come to dominate us today. Control and fear are two sides of the same coin. Technology comes to our rescue when we become fearful of our circumstances, whether we're lost in the middle of a busy city or worry about a river flooding our home next year. More often than not, such fears are artificially introduced into our minds. Human societies have lived in harmony with nature for hundreds of thousands of years and we'd developed a keen sense for what nature is telling us. The fear of the flood is an artifact of civilization. And the fear of being lost in a city is an artifact of modern living. In both cases, we attempt to control our circumstances with the aid of technology.

Control takes many forms. When settled life began about 10,000 years ago, it was almost always about survival. But over time, some societies, but not all, started deploying technologies not just to ensure safety and security, but for more overt control. To bend our environment into shape to meet our needs and later, our greed, our fancies and pleasures speaks to this overarching theme of control. We're exhorted by our leaders, our schools and universities, our workplaces and other institutions to "rise above our circumstances". Rising above our circumstances naturally tends to assume a positive connotation and modern society provides us means to overcome our circumstances. The means may be different for each of us but technology helps us everywhere and facilitates control.

To be sure, not all of us participate in societal decisions that lead to deployment of technologies and hence control. So when I use "we", "humanity", and other collective terminology, it's not necessarily you and me. It's those of us who hold power and control vast resources, the billionaires among us, the leaders among us. It's they who are primarily responsible for making decisions on which kinds of technologies will be developed by society and for what purposes. Often, and especially in our age, technologies are deployed by the few for direct and overt control of the very populations that help make them a reality. The software engineer who works on face recognition technologies makes it possible for the authorities to spy on his own children. So control is not just about human control over nature but control of man over man. In a way, this is not really distinct from control over nature because man is "of" nature, man belongs to nature. Again, to be more precise, some of us are closer to nature than some others and in this regard, the dominion over nature extends smoothly into dominion over fellow man. In real terms, it takes the form of oppression and genocide of indigenous and tribal peoples of the planet because among all human beings, these peoples are the closest to nature. In many ways, they are part of nature. They live in nature, they live off of nature and meld smoothly with it. Nature offers them for free everything they need to lead a satisfying life. These peoples suffer first and suffer most when those of us who are more insulated from nature oppress and control nature.

The only exception that comes to mind when I think of all the uses that technology can be put to is when we use technology for artistic or aesthetic pursuits but such uses are far and few between and form but a few drops in the vast sea full of other motivations. More often, it's been to overcome our natural limitations which amounts to controlling our circumstances. Modern technologies, especially, illustrate this aspect of control: the airplane allows us to do something we weren't meant to do but we've overcome the limitation of flight that birds are not subject to, the telephone allows us to do something we weren't meant to do but we've overcome the limitation of long-distance communication and electricity, likewise, provides us with instant access to nearly unlimited amount of power which again is a good example of thorough ascendancy of humanity over its circumstances. The trouble is, once set in motion, it's almost impossible to stop technological advancement. So while, there doesn't seem to be much, if anything, misplaced about our desire to fly, to communicate and to power our devices with electricity, there comes a point in time when the very foundations of technology are threatened by its relentless advancement. We must not forget that every ounce of technology relies on the ecology and the Earth that hosts the ecology. The Earth provides critical minerals like Coltan without which we wouldn't have smart phones. The massive data centers that power the Internet need enormous amounts of electricity which come from dams, coal or other natural sources. The single most important Earth resource that has been a crucial piece of this foundation to technological advancement over the last 100+ years and continues to be is oil and gas. We live in the times when this foundation is being eaten away at a rapid pace. The ecological foundation that technology rests upon also serves as a foundation for life and life on the planet is currently under threat. The threat, again, comes from our need to control, and more precisely, the need of a fraction of human beings to control nature and the rest of us, with technology assisting them at every step.

The way technology, or man's inclination to control his circumstances, seems to work is that such control is not one-sided. The more we try and control our circumstances (by controlling our environment, the nature we're part of and even fellow human beings), the more circumstances end up controlling us. The more we treat nature as a machine amenable to modification, the more we treat ourselves and each other as machines. Today, we find ourselves at a point where the most prized and valuable members of our society, the bankers, computer scientists, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and other leaders are also the same people who are most machine-like. Some of them are machine-like in the sense that they are rational, logical and scientific and some in the sense that they don't have much of a conscience.

What seems to be happening is that we're less emotionally resilient at both the individual and collective level. At the individual level, dependence on technology makes it difficult to be fully human and causes much suffering and at the collective level, technology is leading us into enormous global problems that are so intractable all the more because the individuals comprising the collective are already occupied with their own suffering that they're going through at a personal level.

When we think of technology, the things that come to mind are the Internet, the smart phone, and other examples of consumer technology. With this different definition of technology as a means of control. consumer technology comes in at just the fringes of a wide web of core technologies that have deep foundations. Technology is generally created, developed and used first by the military. Business soon finds ways to use technology and finally it trickles down to the common man. The military and business are much more effective at deriving the benefits of technology and what gets passed on to the masses are the means of control sugar-coated with so-called "features". Like Sven brings to our attention (and this is something hardly anyone ever notices), for all the excitement around the consumer technologies of recent years, all we have to show are small ways to help us navigate an alien world. Alien because it's almost entirely artificial. Finding a place to sleep, asking help from a neighbor, finding one's way back home, keeping in touch with family were never a problem for human beings until recently. When I was in India last March, I saw a poor old woman riding in the bus. She did have a cell phone though. Technocrats like pointing out how useful that cellphone must be to her in helping her keep in touch with her son who lives in a far away city. What they fail to realize is that her son was actually living with her or near her in the village with his extended family prior to moving to the city and there wouldn't have been a need for such a degraded level of communication that a cellphone provides if he didn't move out of the village. And the son didn't move out of the village to the city to become rich but to survive and send money back to his family to help them survive. He and his family's traditional livelihood was perhaps displaced by the effects of technology in the first place. This is the story of millions of human beings all across the world who are forced to migrate against their wishes to low paid "jobs" in the cities. Technology has been a cause of this trend for decades. For example, the likes of Monsanto have been responsible across the world for monocrops, farmer suicides and much upheaval in rural farming communities and ecologies. Bio-technology has been part of the corporate game plan to gain control over food. It's as if technology makes deep wounds and then provides a couple of band aids. It's much easier to notice the band aids but harder to see the fact that the wounds themselves were caused by technology in the first place.

Technology is fundamentally about control and manipulation. It's about transcending limitations and while there's nothing inherently wrong about transcending limitations, to do so by means of controlling the external environment is dangerous in the long run. We seem to have chosen to use more technology to solve the problems left behind by older technologies. This strategy is flawed. It simply compounds a bad situation and makes things worse despite how promising a new technology might appear in the beginning. If we view technology as control and manipulation, control begets control and it's a never ending problem. Human beings are an integral part of their host, the planet. They arise from it and dissolve into it. Their control of their host is proving to be disastrous. Again, to be sure, it's worth repeating that it's not all humans that are part of this game. It's a fraction, in fact. Those who seek control over fellow human beings and nature amass vast quantities of wealth, which is a proxy for control. They dictate the agenda. A number of us get sucked into their game because it benefits us in some way. Perhaps it offers us a way out of what we have come to consider as a backward and declining way of life (living close to the land and amidst nature and other beings). So we surround ourselves with artificial constructs, live in artificial environments, follow man-made laws and insulate ourselves from nature. Then there are the rest of us who can't or won't leave their traditional way of life and they end up suffering much as they find themselves oppressed by those who seek control and those who help the ones who control.

The sooner we, as a species, realize what technology really stands for, the sooner we will find out what to do to save ourselves and the planet.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Sociopath Next Door

[Approximate Reading Time: 15 minutes]
[Mood: Informed]

A few months ago, the resident manager at my apartment complex asked me if I would be interested in taking her place because she's moving out to a bigger apartment elsewhere. I was introduced to the founders of the property management company that manages my complex. The "community manager" position required an interview with the founders who between them run the company as both business partners and a husband and wife team. Their company turned out to be much larger than I expected. They manage the day-to-day operations at dozens of apartment complexes through out the San Francisco Bay Area. My second interview was with the chief, a man who claimed real estate was his passion. It's hard for me to imagine what it might be like to have a passion for something as mundane as real estate but he helped me empathize with him better when he told me he liked landscaping. When his company started managing my complex, he spent time re-doing the landscaping and added much greenery that I have come to appreciate. So I owe my delightful sights of hummingbirds just outside my window to this man's passion for landscaping!

Real estate is a cut-throat business. His company's primary responsibilities are fiduciary duties to the wealthy owners of the properties that the company manages. Finding good tenants who are likely to pay rent on time is a responsibility of the "community managers" who reside at their respective properties. "You might have to turn off compassion at times", he said to me. "You will have to maintain a certain distance from your neighbors because you are going to be a representative of the company and might have to take action against them if they stop paying rent." On my drive back home, I couldn't help but wonder how normal it all seemed. Here was a run off the mill company, one of hundreds of thousands of such companies all over the country, stating clearly as one of the requirements in the job description, the ability to turn off compassion on demand.

As an observer, I prefer to take the position not of a participant in society whose suitability for this job is at stake and depends on his moral constitution, but of a neutral witness. I don't claim to have any more or less compassion for fellow human beings than anyone else but I do think it's worth thinking about questions such as these: why does this seem so normal, almost unremarkable? It would hardly be a source of complaint for most us who might sit through a job interview to be asked to lose a bit of our conscience every now and then. When has it become the way of the world? Did human societies throughout history subscribe to similar worldviews as ours?

"The Sociopath Next Door", by Martha Stout, a psychologist casts some light. About 4% of Americans are sociopaths. They have no conscience. The book makes it sound as if the rest of us have about the same amount of conscience but I prefer to think of it as a continuum. Out of 100 randomly chosen people, 4 have absolutely no conscience whatsoever, 4 have way too much conscience to function effectively as a cog in the machine that is modern society, with the rest occupying various places on the continuum. So we're dealing with a larger number of people, way more than 4, out of 100, who have some conscience (unlike the sociopaths who have none) but only a little.

But how significant is 4%?

Meet Skip...

Contrary to popular belief, most sociopaths are not usually violent and angry. Most of them are much like any of us on the surface and go on living amongst us undetectable. The book goes to great lengths to drive home this point and provides examples of normal looking men and women who are nevertheless a danger to the people who enter their lives. 

Skip makes a name for himself as a successful businessman. When a sociopath enters the public sphere, he or she ends up being a danger to entire groups and even countries. History has shown this time and again.

But what's sociopathy, really? And why is it so hard to imagine what it's like to be a sociopath?

Sociopaths and those with little conscience play to win. They have an intense need to control others and to prove to themselves and others that they are in control. This tendency could take the shape of wanting to see other people jump as when a sociopath robs a post office and watches the commotion and police activity from nearby. Or it could take the shape of feeling the power of being able to allocate enormous resources across international borders and see markets and bottom lines expand at great cost to society and planet.

If sociopathy is the absence of conscience, what's conscience? And what does its absence entail?

The incidence of sociopathy is found to be lower among the general populations of Eastern cultures than Western cultures. A highly individualistic society encourages sociopathic tendencies while group-centered societies discourage such tendencies due to the presence of generally accepted moral codes that "make sense" at a cognitive/intellectual level rather than an emotional level.

It stands to reason that there are cultures today (and perhaps many have existed in the past) that absorb negative tendencies in human beings such as greed, selfishness and a desire to control others and encourage the flowering of more positive ones.

The book talks at length about why it's so difficult for most of us to accept that there are people with absolutely no conscience among us. Without this acceptance, it would be much harder to entertain the idea that perhaps we as a species have unwittingly granted the responsibility of leading us into the future to so-called leaders who actually have little or no conscience, that perhaps the leaders among us, business executives, politicians, religious leaders are more or less composed of people who fall at the lower end of the conscience continuum. It does take a fair bit of "winning" to "rise" to such heights! And "winning" is what sociopaths do best. It would be rather hard for a person of conscience to beat a sociopath at this game because sociopaths go to great lengths to win with no conscience to be bothered with.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept the idea that some of us have no conscience?

It appears that most of us have difficulty imagining world leaders and others in positions of power to fall on the lower end of the conscience continuum. They inspire us and command and even deserve our respect. We like reading their autobiographies and talking about their exploits in the world of business or politics. And yet, there are clues that indicate that the people we hold in such high esteem are deep down people with a need to control others, to amass vast amounts of direct control or more often, vast amounts of wealth which is a proxy for control over resources and the destinies of men, and ultimately to strategize and win at whatever game they have chosen to play.

In the face of reality, what's one supposed to do to protect oneself? What are we supposed to do collectively to protect the planet and the species? "Question authority", says the author.

The battle in our minds between obeying our conscience and obeying an external authority has been explored by the social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s in his famous experiments. The book describes these experiments and how the presence of authority might encourage us to temporarily suspend conscience and go along with what authority is telling us to do in the moment.

Sociopathy is a a rather odd "disease" because the sociopath is seldom affected by it. He is in no state of distress unlike with other ailments. Moreover, sociopaths don't even know there's something wrong with the way they interact with society. In fact, they wonder why everyone is not more like them.

Sociopaths are quick to defend themselves. In their view, they can do nothing wrong, have done nothing wrong even if it's quite obvious to their victims and others.

This book provided me with certain insights that help explain the world we live in today. Sociopathy might have been part of the human condition for as long as there have been human beings on this planet, but certain cultures seem to encourage it more than others. Historically, societies where food was not under lock and key, like the hunter-gatherers, were the kinds of societies where control over others made little sense and hence discouraged sociopathic tendencies among tribe members. On the other end of the spectrum, we have modern western societies whose culture and ideology have been successfully exported to the rest of the world where sociopathic tendencies are encouraged by a heavily individualistic culture. Individualism is a positive word in western thought but one would only have to look around to realize that its almost always someone else's individualism that matters more than yours.

Only in a world run by sociopaths and people with little conscience could one make sense of a job requirement that demands suspension of conscience. My landlord mentioned it rather coldly, as a matter of business, as a matter of fact. He's not an exception but the rule. The requirement to suspend conscience goes hand in hand with most forms of employment in the modern world. Sooner or later, we're all confronted with situations where it's our boss that we listen to or our conscience and more often than not, it's the boss that wins. The boss wouldn't be the boss if he couldn't pull that off. And so it goes up the hierarchy with those who are at the helm having truly mastered the art. No one said sociopaths aren't intelligent, charming, handsome, beautiful and gregarious. Winning and controlling are the two ladders that the sophisticated sociopaths among us seek to climb as they propel themselves to ever dizzying heights of what we've been taught to call "success".

It all makes sense when we consider that the state of the planet is at its worst ever since human beings first appeared on Earth. One has to be willing to question the ideas of progress that have been so successfully planted in our minds at a very young age to see and acknowledge the devastation a single species can wreak on its home. The life of the average human being is considerably more miserable in the modern age compared to any other time in history or prehistory. The current state of affairs wouldn't have become possible if we didn't unwittingly entrust ourselves and our fate to those among us who care for nothing more than winning. Winning at the games they make up, and the games they make us play in. Winning against all odds, winning at great personal risk, winning at great collective risk, making risky technological bets. These and other traits that we see in our leaders are the traits of sociopaths and people with little conscience. It's the hardest thing to grasp, to hold in your mind and to contemplate if this could indeed be an explanation for what we see around us in the world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Gods Must be Crazy!

The Bushmen of the Kalahari

[Watching time: 1 hour 50 minutes]

Happy New Year!