The Power of Technology

This post starts new series of posts about technology and its impact on humans. Some of the things that sci-fi writers wrote many years ago were indeed invented eventually, like planes, laser surgery, X-ray machines, weapons of mass destruction, etc. Many other inventions are still in works or considered to be totally fictional (time machine, clothes to make us invisible, etc.)

Common belief is that new technological discoveries are good for us and can solve a lot of problems or at least reduce our own limitations (help us live longer, reallocate resources, etc.) The majority of these inventions is to benefit humans, but could also harm us depending on how they are used. We somehow trust our governments to do the job of screening all innovations and deciding what the outcome will be. But do governments really have control over all private labs and research projects in the world? Who stands behind most technological discoveries? Will findings always be used to benefit us?

“With great power, comes great responsibility”. Many governments can’t resolve internal conflicts, never mind international. There is so much controversy about what is right or wrong, true or false, good or bad. There are always cultural nuances in morals interpretations (capital punishment as an example).

Both in literature and cinematography we find examples of how things may go awfully wrong for humans. Just to name a few movies: “I, robot”, “The Island”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “The Matrix”, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, “Minority report”, “Blade runner”, etc.

H. G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds” over 100 years ago (published in 1898). From Wikipedia:

“Human Evolution from the War of the worlds:

The novel suggests a potential future for human evolution and perhaps a warning against overvaluing intelligence against more human qualities. The Narrator describes the Martians as having evolved an overdeveloped brain, which has left them with cumbersome bodies, with increased intelligence, but a diminished ability to use their emotions, something Wells attributes to bodily function. The Narrator refers to an 1893 publication suggesting that the evolution of the human brain might outstrip the development of the body, and organs such as the stomach, nose, teeth and hair would wither, leaving humans as thinking machines, needing mechanical devices much like the Tripod fighting machines, to be able to interact with their environment.”

Not to talk about extremes, but by means of technology we are changing our behavior and ourselves. We are focusing more on developing our brain instead of our heart. To connect to our hearts, Dalai Lama said, we need to unite and focus on our similarities, not our differences. He joked that it would happen if Martians invaded Earth. There’s a grain of truth in every joke. Why can’t we do it on our own?

Technology that we create creates all kinds of opportunities. We need to make sure that we create not just for the sake of it. Kurt Vonnegut’s wrote about it in his novel “Cat’s Craddle” (1963).

The book came about after Vonnegut interviewed scientists and found that some were indifferent about the ways their discoveries might be used. The University of Chicago awarded Vonnegut his Master’s degree in anthropology for Cat’s Cradle. In this book humans simply die from their own creation called ice nine. Cat’s Craddle is fiction and lets keep it this way.

Kurt Vonnegut and H.G. Wells are not alone, there are other writers who ask similar questions and challenge unlimited power of technological inventions and humans behind them. One of those writers is Sherry Turkle, who spent over 30 years researching the topic of technology. Her latest book “Alone Together” came out in Jan 2011. She warns us that technology does change us and we need to know its effect on us. Tomorrow, Oct 15, 2011, she will be speaking at the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square. So if you are not ready to read her 300 page book, come and hear what she has to say, and decide whether you agree or disagree… “Either you think, or others have to think for you, and take power from you.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Testing the Happiness Calculator

Before all categories in the tool were finalized, I was very curious about my own ratio of happiness and categories in the formula. I predicted about 5 categories in mine, but as I went through the first exercise, that was not the case.

On Day 1 my happiness ratio was 85%, which was higher than I expected. I thought that one category that I’m not satisfied with would outweigh others, but it didn’t because I value several other categories just as high in priority. Even though sometimes I grouch about something, it means that I keep forgetting how blessed I’m with other things in life and I can’t take them for granted.  

I took a moment and imagined some scenarios… I would not be as happy if that one category was high on my satisfaction scale, but low on priority, or if some other categories were low in satisfaction, because I know they are my high priorities, like friends, health, environment, etc. My results varied slightly daily, and I’m sure that they would vary more if I measured my happiness monthly! At the end of the week I got really curious about my feelings on the days of measurements, and I reconstructed my activities that week.

On Day 1, my ratio was 85% and I worked at home all day and didn’t even have time to go out.

On Day 2 , though, I interacted with a lot of people: went rollerblading with a group of friends and had a nice dinner, laughed a lot, but my happiness ratio went down to 82%, and I think mainly because there were moments  of melancholy that day when I thought about that one damn category.

On Day 3, I went to work and after work I wrote a blog post and worked more on promoting the meet-up event in Boston on June 22, contacting some people and … my happiness ratio was at 87% that day. I didn’t work out, I didn’t have good food, I didn’t’ spend time with friends or family,  I just worked on my Project after work and that gave me my boost of happiness.

On Day 4, I played with the tool by building constraints and expanding limits. I decided to only include 5 categories in my formula, so I picked 5 the most important ones.  My happiness ratio plummeted to 69%. I changed importance scale from 0-4 to 0-5, so I had to answer all questions again.

There were some shocking results. (When I answer questions , I hide previous answers, so that I don’t get distracted by my old answers). My happiness changed in just 5 minutes by +1%! Just in minutes my importance of hobbies to my happiness went  down by 66%! It is funny, that I changed my mind about some categories so quickly and I didn’t remember how I rated them only minutes ago.

Main lesson learned: try to be as honest as possible when answering questions, because your mind will play games with you, so listen to your heart.

Lastly, I was curious to create graphs for each category, and I did it. On Day 6 I wanted to know why I felt one way or another and wished I wrote down my thoughts on low points and highlights of categories…

Results of the Happiness Survey

Back in March I crafted a survey to help understand what makes people happy and if technology can help us become happier. Volunteers completed the survey anonymously either online or on paper. There were two groups of respondents: a) middle class, age range of 20-40 y.o., who use technology for social purpose, not particularly religious, mainly employed, b) middle to upper class retired people, i.e. 50 y.o. and above, who are not too fond of technology vs. face-to-face meetings for social purpose, mainly non-religious, but with high priorities on ethics and humanism (representatives from Boston Ethical Society). Thank you to all participants!

The Happiness survey is phase One of The Ultimate Answer project, which is about:

  • ›What makes people happy?
  • ›How open are people to share their ideas about happiness and help each other?
  • ›Are there any “common denominators” of happiness?
  • ›Is it possible to measure happiness and how?
  • ›How can happiness be increased in the world?
  • ›Can technology leverage human potential to increase happiness and how?
  • ›What is the meaning of life and how to find it?

82 people answered the survey: 15 from Boston Ethical Society(BES) and 67 from non-BES.

Here are some highlights:

  • 99% knows what happiness is, but only 72% knows what the meaning of life is. Those 28% who have no clue really need to catch up on Monty Python…
  • People are more likely to give a piece of advice than to receive it.
  • 9 out of 10 said that happiness is not permanent, it changes over time.
  • Answers from BES (more ethical and older) group were different from non-BES respondents.
  • Meaning of life is different from personal happiness.

Please, feel free to check out the results of the survey for yourself Happiness Survey Results

Losing Meaning: Part One

There are more than six billion of us now, no wonder that each of us is not that valuable anymore, or at least it feels that way. It is almost like being a commodity, when supply is high, but demand is low. Depreciation of our value comes from many factors, including globalization, advanced technology and social norms.

More and more we feel ourselves easily replaceable. Think of restructuring, lay-offs and outsourcing. You don’t like you job or your salary? No worries, we’ll find your replacement in a heartbeat, there are a lot of you out there.  Suddenly you are no longer needed. Now it is called lean, flexible and streamlining.

Even if you have a job, do you really feel it is meaningful? Does your organization bring real value to the world? Are more people happier because of what you do or is it the other way around? Do you feel like your skills and talents are aligned with job responsibilities? How many people hate their jobs, but  think that there is no way out? They have huge bills to pay and  it is hard to find another job. Millions of people are stressed because of all of that, whether they have jobs or they don’t.

The majority of jobs lacks any creativity, does not utilize our talents, gives no freedom and incentives that are structured incorrectly. Then many organizations have vague mission statements, which are useless. Do you ever feel like a small piece of a big mechanical machine that would run perfectly without you? It is mainly because we don’t get appreciated or valued for what we really are – live humans with our own ideas and desire to be useful.

Technology makes things easy, but unfortunately we don’t appreciate what we get without effort. That doesn’t mean we don’t need automated processes and tools, etc. It just means that we can’t apply them to everything in our lives, because then we wouldn’t feel worthy of anything. We can’t eliminate all effort altogether, so that life is super easy. What will be the point of even getting up every day if everything could be automated? If technology does it all for us, imagine The Matrix but according to our own will: we will just stay in beds and our atrophied physical bodies will be connected by tubes and cables to the machines. Our meaning and value will be zero, except for body heat. How good is it for a life with no effort?

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