Concept vs Reality, a Cautionary Tale

Procrastination! It has been more than a month since my last post. It is not like I have nothing to write about. In fact, I have a long list, my head full of words that are trying to find their way out. The problem has been simple – plain old boring lack of motivation! You might catch me talking for more than my share at dinners or in the car with friends, but when the time comes to sit at the computer and stare at that screen, that same computer I have been trying to get away from for so long, my mind simply disappears. It goes away, fleeing the scene like a child that has absolutely no desire of taking a bath! I sit on that chair, pressing the keys randomly, as if I was waiting for some magical event – a kind of trance where my fingers would start moving without me thinking about it. But then the minutes pass, my mind wanders, my eyes look away – out the window – and next thing I know, I have moved on to something else. Maybe coming clean about my lack of concentration and laziness will force me forward. First step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging you have a problem right?

Hello, my name is Daniel (Hello Daniel). I have been lazy for over a month now. There, I’ve said it! Now let’s do some writing!

DLD_DanielFox_2013_22Last month I attended the conference DLD in Munich, where I was doing some creative photography. DLD stands for Digital Lifestyle Design. It was truly incredible to meet and hear so many fascinating people, creative in so many ways, and all out trying to make the world a better place. But every time I find myself in these events, every time I hear these talks, I am always left with a bitter aftertaste. Let me explain why in two parts.

The first part is about concept and reality. The second is published on the EPIC conservation blog and is titled – Our Salvation in God Technologius.

Air Force captain Theodore Van Kirk, navigator of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan said in 2005:

“I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life. We unleashed the first atomic bomb, and I hope there will never be another. I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I’m not sure that we have.”

There is a reason why today the world is still afraid of nuclear – we still have a physical memory of its destructive power. Whether it is the Second World War or Chernobyl disaster, the damages were so visceral that it’s stayed in our cultural collective memory. Independently of how beneficial nuclear energy could be for a sustainable world, no one wants to go for it.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2There was a time when our world lived in a reality – we were connected to real things, real consequences, our connection to the world was physical. Nowadays, things couldn’t be more different. Life has become a concept. Our connection to our world is through theories, algorithms and computers. Nature is a remote “beautified” possession, an ideology of a pristine static environment. Our “zero casualties” wars are conducted by drones, piloted by video gamers who sit behind a screen and go back home to their families at the end of the day. Collateral damage is only something they see and calculate, not feel. None of these soldiers go home and have nightmares from the horrors of war. The consequences of our actions are pushed out, hiding away the destructive effect our lifestyle and choice of values has. And with all of this, our arrogance grows to new heights.

We have to be careful in our semantics and what we pretend to understand. Loving the cuteness of polar bears does not make someone connected to nature. Fighting a war with drones does not mean you understand what war is. Talking about garbage in the ocean doesn’t make you an environmentalist. Being a vegetarian does not make you a friend of the planet. Being an expert in coding and algorithms surely doesn’t make you expert in life. Having thousands of friends on Facebook doesn’t mean you are a nice person to be around. Being famous doesn’t mean you bring value to society. And having all this technology available doesn’t make us better or more advance.The debate has become really important not only in our relationship with nature, but also with violence. The last shooting in the USA and the need for gun reforms has led to pointing fingers to the usual culprits, with the usual answer – “Violence has always existed!” Yes, it has, but our relationship with it was real, physical. Today, violence is a game, a concept, a virtual experience. The world is constantly exposed to violence, but from its seat in front of a television or while playing a video game. Movies have become more and more violently graphic due to the technology in special effects.

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The most popular video games are the bloody and violent ones where the players kill and butcher their way around. But all of this is only a concept. Even bullying has lost it sense of reality, except for the ones who suffer from it. Hiding behind the screen, kids no longer censor themselves and their mean and cruel behaviour finds false courage in anonymity. In the past, you needed to have balls and arrogance to play bully.  Now you only need to be a coward to terrorise your school. If that was not enough, once home, a child would usually be clear of the bullies, but now victims can’t hide because the attackers find their way into their rooms, into their computers, into their “online identities”. How can we expect the children to have any sense of consequences to their actions when the world around them glamourises damages and feeds on misery?

We are entering a new age where robots will start to perform more and more tasks and with them they will take away our last connection to reality. Will we fully drown ourselves in an ocean of virtuality and concepts? I have written before on how knowledge is our Achille’s Heel

“… from within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed…”

and about our flawed perception of nature.

“… It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathised for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall…” 

In the book “Concept & Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” the author refers to the mind’s conceptual proliferation, its tendency to create a screen of concepts by which it misinterprets the basic data of experience. From behind our television and our computers, it has become too easy to conceptualise the world, life, ourselves, our issues, our challenges. At DLD, there was excitement in the air, a sense of euphoria, talking about all this new data we are gathering, all these doors that technology is opening – and how all of this will make our lives better, how it will come and take away all our problems. Really? Aren’t we forgetting the most fundamental reality? As much as all this information, all these possibilities, are painting a really bright and promising future, the truth is that, at the end of the day, we are humans, not machines.

All this reminded me of the NOVA’s documentary Mind Over Money, with Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago School of Economics with their rational expectations and their belief that economics has nothing to do with human behaviour.  That it can all be boiled down to equations and formulas – a disconnected utopian world of theories… look where it has led us.

The beauty of our lives – of life – does not find its root in numbers, codes and algorithms. Following a recipe to the letter doesn’t mean it will create the perfect dish. It is the human touch that brings the real value. John Maeda was on the dot at DLD 2013 when he said, talking about design: “The beauty comes from what you experience, the emotions, the facial expressions, the subtleties and for that there is no design thinking algorithm”.

More on the EPIC blog.

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Our Salvation in God Technologius

Data & Technology are two pillars that have redefined our world in every imaginable and possible way. From design to healthcare, from business to personal relationship, from war to education, there is not an inch of our lives that hasn’t been affected. While the other essay looked at data and the dangers of living in a world of concepts – disconnected from realities, this text will look at technology and how it is driving us further and further away from nature and the true essence of life.

ipad godTechnology has become today’s most important religion. Much like pilgrimages in the past, people now demonstrate the same kind of devotion to hardware, lining up in front of stores for days or weeks just to buy the newest model. Not that there is a limited amount of them available for purchase. On the contrary. But the act of holding in your hands the newest iPhone seems to offer the same kind of “spiritual” experience as to touching a statue of Jesus after climbing up Scala Sancta on your knees.

Although technology is fulfilling most of the criteria of being a religion, it differs on one of the fundamentals – Divinity. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism worship a God, Gods and Goddesses, supreme beings from a supernatural realm. Technology holds a more corporeal attraction, stripping away the supernatural and putting divinity within the human grasp. Humans are now the divine. Humans are gods and life is something constraining from which they can break free. This new reality was strikingly evident at DLD 2013.

Before we go into the specifics, let’s just have a look at how the application of technology into our lives can be divided into three distinct categories.

SALVATION
The definition of salvation is the following: “Deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ / Preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss / A source or means of being saved in this way. The word comes from Latin salvare – ‘to save’.

Technology saving earthThat is exactly how we see technology today. We expect, hope and blindingly believe that it will deliver us from our sins. That it will correct and fix the damages created by our unsustainable lifestyle. We think there is no need to reassess how we do things and why we do them, but that the problem is only a question of application, of management. So if we can come up with the right solution, the right technology, everything will be alright. Therefore, we continue to plunder our way through, waiting for the silver bullet, just a like an addict gambler who gambles his last dollar, convinced that his luck will turn around.

UNFAIRNESS
Life is unfair and we anticipate the day when technology will correct this mistake. Our privileged upbringing in the Age of Invention leads us to intuit that natural selection is broken and flawed. Nobody should have to deal with birth defects or the loss of a limb. Nobody should have to live with unbalanced hormones or bad genetics. Everybody deserves to be “happy” and anything that infringes on that “right” needs to be corrected or eliminated. Whether it is a disease, our fear of ageing or our lack of self-esteem, nature is the enemy.

What we have been able “fix” so far is nothing compared to the scale of what we will be able to “repair” in the near future. Gattaca was science fiction in 1997 but today it is reality. No one will want to accept what life has given them, instead focusing on what they don’t have and how to get it. From the moment we are born we will start shopping to mend our undesired and unwanted bodies – hormones, surgeries, implants, electrodes, nano shots, etc. Technology will try to re-create the human body, making it more resilient, longer lasting, resistant to aging, smarter and stronger – so we believe.

FLAWED HUMANS
The evolution of society would teach us that not only is our body limiting us to achieve maximum potential, but it is above all else a source of great risk. While computers are consistent, logical, rational, fast and powerful, humans are – simply put – a pool of emotions always on the verge of breaking. Technology will make sure to correct this unpredictable, risky and unsafe situation by taking humans out of the equation – for the greater good of humanity!

Hugh Herr is an Associate Professor within MIT’s Program of Media Arts and Sciences, and The Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. His talk at DLD 2013 embodied to the core the “unfairness” mentality. He envisions a world free of injustice where bionics and machines “cure” us from our disabilities. He rejoices at the promise of a world where humans will be “fixed”. Himself victim of an accident that took away both lower legs, he professes how he has become a better athlete with his artificial limbs.

It is his moralistic view that worries me the most, that it is a human right to be born “perfect” and that machines and technology will be our way to perfection. He states:

“Over half of the world’s population suffers from a cognitive, emotional, or physical condition and because of poor technology, bad technology, these conditions often resolve in disability and poorer quality of life. It is my view that basic levels of cognitive emotional sensory and physical function should be a part of our human rights. Each person in the world should have the right to live without debilitating disabilities… Through fundamental advances in human machine interaction we can eliminate disability and set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience. The mergence of humans with machines and the elimination of disability will be one of the great narratives of this century”

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.08.25 PMAt the end of his presentation at DLD, Herr welcomed on the stage one of his climbing heroes Reinhold Messner for a chat. It was obvious that Messner was not so excited about the prospect of living in a world where our bodies would merge with machines – even going as far as to predict the death of our species. In response Herr admitted that there were great dangers on entering these treacherous waters, but believed that we would be able to manage and control the applications.

“… how depressed do you need to be to have an intervention? Do we want people to receive the intervention that are slightly depressed who producing great art or do we only want it to use when they are suicidal? These are very complex questions that we will have to address.”

In response I would draw a correlation to the plastic surgery industry – a medical advancement developed to help people in real need, but which has evolved into an industry which profits mainly from insecure egos. Towards the end of their discussion, Messner posited that in reality this technology would only be used by the rich and leave behind the poor, to which Herr answered that manufacturing would be done in such a way that local communities could build such high tech devices at very low costs, consequently allowing anyone to use it. Again, our record is not really optimistic, whether with medication (drugs) or healthcare. Our system is far from being an example of fair opportunities. It is flagrantly naive to believe that the proliferation of bionics will be any more altruistically managed by society.

428102_10151434935701800_1544050890_nMissy Cummings is an Associate Professor in the Aeronautics & Astronautics Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the Humans and Automation Lab. She appeared on the Daily Show (part 1, 2, 3 of the interview) recently to discuss the technology behind drones and highlight their uses outside the battlefield. Cummings is a firm believer that humans are a risk and that the sooner we take them out of the equation, the better it will be for everyone.

“…80% of all aviation accidents, commercial and military, are due to pilot error, so the machines doesn’t make mistakes that we make…”

Pushing further, she suggested that technology had even been beneficial for gender discrimination

“… technology has kind of equalised the playing field because now the automation is a much better pilot no matter what gender there is [piloting]. It is not men vs women anymore, but Man vs Machine … machines are simply better pilots than humans.”

Stewart then worried that we were taking the “Art” of flying away and warned that even though computers were great, they still failed from time to time. Cummings replied that, just like anybody that works in technology, we would have the necessary structure in place to deal and contain any problems.

With both Herr and Cummings, there is a recurring theme, a word that constantly comes up with whomever presents or talks about technology – speed. Everything is going so fast these days, so fast indeed that the only way to keep up is by going faster. Hence the need for machines.

“… this technology is advancing at such a lighting speed it is ultimately only limited by the human ability to process the information… ” says Cummings.

This for me is the scariest and most worrisome aspect of the whole technology and future debate. The notion of pressing the gas pedal when you are about to loose control is the most illogical and arrogant argument ever.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 2.39.40 PMWhen DLD audience member Elizabeth Taylor asked Peter Thiel, following his talk (check timecode 47:10), about his Acceleration Model and that perhaps we should decelerate since our quest for growth and constant acceleration has had tremendous consequences on the planet’s resources, Thiel answered that the past acceleration was one of collapse, which he states was not a proper acceleration, that we should focus on “good” acceleration. He concluded with

“… technological acceleration is absolutely critical at this point because the other three models (cycle, deceleration, collapse) are worst … the only way forward is through technological progress with all the risks that it entails … the current model is indeed not entirely sustainable but we have to actually move forward even faster…”

As if we hadn’t learned anything from the past, there is this utopian belief that we will be able to control, for the greater good of humankind, all technology to come. That all the past mishaps will not apply to the future because we are smarter and know better. This naive and false sense of control is troubling. We are simply drunk with our own god complex.

Life is not about perfection. It is not about the shortest point between two points. Ask anyone who travels – not for business trips, but to discover new places, new cultures, new experiences – and the most wonderful moments are the unexpected ones, the ones where you get lost and explore the unknown.

“… there is no better imagery to epitomize our life journey, than the river. It starts from a point, and ends at another. No matter how wild the river is, no matter how unruly it wants to be, it still has a direction, a purpose, to reach the ocean. It flows blindingly to a place where it will cease to exist. It will merge with something bigger, it will become one with the others. Young rivers are straight – giving more importance in the destination rather than the journey, often missing much of the world they flow in. Their banks offering no protection, the water rushes down, in a hurry. Old rivers meander, understanding that the journey is more important. They turn right and left, sometimes go back up, they explore and wander. There curves offer refuge to others and soon their banks and waters find themselves bursting with life.” – from a story I wrote in 2010 Rio Chubut

I am not against technology -believe me. I love my gadgets and all the convenience they bring me. But we need to be humble and remember who we are, and more critically, the limitations of the collective “We”. There are countless concrete past experiences, and stories, that we can go back to and realize that independently however much we think we are in control, we are not. And that our quest for perfection has consequences that are not worth it.

We need to take time to ask ourselves: “Is perfection something we should strive for? Or is imperfection the key for happiness?” Are we just a society in denial, buried in work, blinding ourselves with our capacity for the grandiose only to avoid our sickness? Any psychologist or therapist would say so. I do not believe that the key to our happiness and humanity is in our ability to go faster and embrace technology. I do not believe in fast food, diet pills, fake meat and running on the treadmill with glasses that projects a virtual trail. Instead I believe in opening a bottle of wine, inviting friends for a meal, slow cooking a nice roast and planning the next sailing trip!

“Nietzsche, who believed that every man should be a god to himself, saw the challenge of being human in a very simple phrase. He spoke of the human condition as being between the animal and the superman – that is the challenge of the human condition – what you make out of your endowment as an animal and how far you can go along the journey of becoming a god. But even himself, the philosopher against pity, the master of conceptualising everything, felt overwhelmed by the sight of a fallen horse in the street of Turin and rushed to its side, putting his arm around it. Nietzsche was able to express in one of his last gestures to the world, profound sympathy for living condition animals and humans share. Nietzsche’s last sane action had been to affirm his identity not as a god but as a man full of human weaknesses” BBC Documentary Nietzsche – Human, All Too Human

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