Thursday, March 24, 2011

Technology and the meaning of life

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

-- T. S. Elliot

We uncouple technologies, such as computing and road building, from our deepest human values. The questions asked by T. S. Elliot become irrelevant as we refuse to acknowledge the human context.

Students at universities become mainly focused on "practical knowledge" that leads to high paid jobs. The values by which we guide our technological development and application become afterthoughts. We must wonder if technology now controls human life more than humans control technology.

Information technology is valued above wisdom. There is no "wisdom technology". It's easier to understand information technology then wisdom. A high school student can quickly grasp computer programming, but it takes almost an entire lifetime to mature to wisdom. People who think of themselves as wise because they have read some books are dangerous. Wisdom is lived, not mastered as procedures and facts that can be scored on an exam sheet.

Data and information are the "atomic" components of knowledge. These components don't make a lot of sense by themselves. Water is composed of molecules, which are in turn composed of atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. We could say that molecules are like information and atoms (a level further down) are like data. But such an understanding does not allow us to understand the "wetness" of water. Wetness is an emergent phenomenon that is experienced by sentient human beings. When we look at a friend, we just don't see atoms and molecules, we see a friend.

Meaning is the real food of human life. Our real task is to arrange education, family, society, moral training, technology and economic arrangements in way that allows meaningful human life to unfold for as many people as possible. Clearly, we have remarkable technologies. But do we have enough meaning?

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