Friday, September 17, 2010

The Human Use of Human Beings

All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil.
Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792–1822],
English Romantic poet, Prometheus Unbound

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men,
but that men will begin to think like computers.
Sydney J. Harris [1917–1986],
American journalist

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology
has exceeded our humanity.
Albert Einstein [1879–1955],
Nobel laureate in physics

Norbert Wiener [1894-1964]: Prof Wiener, an American mathematician, advocated that we must have a clear vision of the technology's purpose, which must accompany technological know-how.
Photo Credit: Konrad Jacobs, MFO

When I was a student in junior college in the 1970s, I read a book for a humanities class called The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener [1894-1964], a professor of mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prof Wiener, a child prodigy, received his doctorate (in mathematics) from Harvard University in 1912 at age 18.

The book, first published in 1950, is a classic text on cybernetics,or the study of message transmission between people and machines. The book’s central warning about automation’s effects is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago when the book became popular.

Although Prof. Wiener advocated that automation would possibly relieve people of drudgery and repetitive tasks, he also warned against reliance on machinery to displace and dehumanize people. Wiener could not foresee that automation (and computerization) would in many ways introduce other drudgery or mundane work, like data entry, call centres, and low-level jobs with mind-numbing keyboarding tasks.

As for the prophetic warning about displacement and dehumanization, on that account he was prescient. Millions of people have been displaced by machines as part of technological advancement, many for good measure, some for not. Many of these people will likely never find work, as we advance further in the Digital Revolution, repeating a pattern established during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

The unemployment rate in the U.S., for example, will likely remain around 10% for a while, many economists reluctantly say, including President Obama’s Chief Economist, Austan Goolsbee. (So far, eight million jobs have been lost since the beginning of 2008 recession, making this the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that started in 1929.)

As Wiener says, we push ahead and progress with the knowledge that we take a great risk. The myth of Prometheus is still speaking to us, although today it might only be an echo. Such might influence Wiener’s and other prophets or visionaries’ tragic sense of life:
The sense of tragedy is that the world is not a pleasant little nest made for our protection, but a vast and largely hostile environment, in which we can achieve great things only by defying the gods; and that this defiance inevitably brings its own punishment.
Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences is alive and in effect. He was not alone among eminent scientists to hold such a view. A contemporary of Prof Wiener was Albert Einstein, the noted physicist and Nobel laureate, who wrote about the place of technology in human affairs:
More and more I come to value charity and love of one’s fellow being above everything else... All our lauded technological progress—our very civilization—is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminal.
One can disagree with Dr. Einstein, but one cannot easily ignore him. The problem rests with a type of technological worship, which sees each advancement as progress, its adherents faithfully bowing down to the gods of productivity and efficiency—as if that were all that mattered. Profit at all costs becomes the motto, and with technological advancement the profits have become larger, and the job losses greater.

Charity and love do not fit into any equation or any bottom line accounting sheet. They are, after all, the most human of emotions.

As Prof Wiener cautions us, it is not only important to develop a technology, but have an understanding and awareness of its ultimate purpose. That is a foresight that's often lost in the rush for technological advancement and excellence. The loss for humanity? Incalculable. 

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic, moral and personal times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories. 

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