(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please click here to listen to the message. Please read it below.
For just a moment, imagine if I handed each of you right now a magic penny whose value multiplies by 100 every year. After one year, you’d have a measly $1, after two a paltry $100, after three $10,000, after four $1 million, and after five years, $100 million. That would be an astonishing thing but we would both then notice that 99% of the five year value of that coin comes during the fifth year. We might wonder, what was the coin doing those first few years? As any mathematician or financial advisor knows, it was compounding.
That miracle of compounding has happened much the same way with technology. Within the last 250 years, the vast majority of technology we use today was invented. Since modern humans first emerged over 200,000 thousand years ago, we might assume that early people were intellectually lazy or simply stupid.
That, of course, is false. Human knowledge and technological advancement happened much like the compounding value of the magic penny. It took a very long time to develop the intellectual and scientific foundations for more recent innovations and discoveries.
125,000 years ago, humans finally learned how to create and control fire. 50,000 years ago humans developed crude stone tools. 8000 years ago the first metal tool was developed. 4000 years ago, the wheel and abacus were invented. The printing press came 600 years ago; the telescope and microscope 400 years ago; the first steam engine 300 years ago; airplanes and cars 115 years ago; electric computers 65 years ago; the internet 28 years ago, artificially intelligent machines 7 years ago.
In the perspective of 200,000 years of homo sapiens history, the breathtaking rapid technological advances of the last two hundred and fifty years is astonishing. Artificial intelligence itself has led to even more amazing technological firsts – driverless cars, robots that can learn, and the kinds of technology that may truly upend – and perhaps make inconsequential – the very existence of humanity.
This evolution of technology has been spurred throughout history by one common desire – the desire to make life more convenient. When early humans invented spears tipped with flint arrowheads, they caught more food, their families were healthier, and they had more time to create new innovations – like domesticating wild animals so they no longer had to hunt.
That same impulse for convenience led to the invention of the steam and gasoline engines. Humans could use them to grind their grains, weave their fabrics and quickly transport themselves across long distances. Life became more convenient.
Similar inventions of convenience today allow me to a deposit check instantly by taking a digital picture of it with my smartphone and sending it over the internet to my account. No longer must I drive to my bank, stand in line for a teller, and then wait 3 days for me to be able to spend.
But, as we have come to realize, technological advancements are not always as good as originally thought. Nuclear power offered the chance for limitless energy, but its dangers have the potential to destroy us. Gasoline engines clearly made life easier but their carbon dioxide emissions will cause profound climate change. Antibiotics have saved millions but they have also caused the rise of superbugs to which our bodies are defenseless.
Added to those concerns comes a recent article by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University that asserts the continuing development of technological conveniences threatens human significance. Symbolically, technology can get us to the top of mountains via a car or helicopter without having to hike or climb, but what is the satisfaction of that? Technological convenience, Wu writes, diminishes our minds, our bodies and the values that define us. The pursuit of convenience destroys values like hard work, diligence, and perseverance. It also harms our ability to solve problems, and it can call into question the very reason why we exist.
Since our purpose is to do more than merely eat, procreate and seek pleasure, what happens if the work that defines us is increasingly done by machines? Indeed, the recent invention of machine learning presents the very real possibility that years from now, not too far off considering how fast technology advances, the Gathering at Northern Hills will not hire a Minister, or Music Director but will simply purchase software to sing and play the piano, and prepare and deliver Sunday messages. Very few members of the congregation will have jobs either – since most work will be done by artificially intelligent machines – from providing legal advice, to teaching, to serving as doctors and nurses, to engineering, to even designing and building other machines that can learn and think.
And that takes me to the theme of my message series this month, “The Road Less Traveled” and to my topic today, “Embracing Inconvenience.” While making life easier seems to be the road best taken, might the road less taken, the one that embraces inconvenience and challenge, be the one that makes all the difference? For the sake of our survival as a meaningful and capable species, shouldn’t we try to balance our lives by NOT using so many technological conveniences? Shouldn’t we, instead, embrace the inconvenience and the challenge of growing our knowledge, stretching our muscles, hiking to the summit of a symbolic mountain……and thereby live out our purpose – to work, think, serve and improve the world?
The pursuit of convenience by most modern cultures is premised on the idea that physical and mental labor is a burden – things we should avoid if we can. In the early twentieth century, convenience in the home became a goal. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners, electric ovens, and dishwashers were all supposed to make life easier – particularly for women. Betty Friedan, in her book the Feminine Mystique, wrote that the modern woman, despite having multitudes of time saving machines to help with housework, now spends more time doing housework than her great-grandmother. As Friedan notes, that says something not just about technology but also about sexism.
Convenience comes with a cost. It imposes more demands on people while also eliminating many of the skills and abilities that make us human. Why learn the art of cooking if one can pour a mix into a bowl, add water, and then pop it into a microwave for heating? Far from enhancing the art of food selection and preparation, or the health benefits of eating natural foods, we now consume highly processed food products manufactured in factories and cooked by machines – all for the sake of convenience. We’ve lost a meaningful connection to what we eat – and how the preparation of food enhances our minds, bodies and souls.
The same is true for office related machines. Copiers, printers, computers, and word processors were all supposed to make business more efficient and thus allow more time for other tasks. Why bother learning greater language skills if computers correct spelling and grammar? Why learn advanced research methods, critical thinking, or the ability to analyze complex issues if Google and the internet provide immediate answers? Why spend an evening with close friends engaging in enlightening conversation if one can sit alone, log into facebook or Twitter, and chat with total strangers? Even worse, we’ve all seen groups of people who are physically together, but nevertheless isolated in a digital world displayed on their smartphones – and not being present with people sitting right next to them.
Even relatively new forms of technology now seem irrelevant. Why anticipate and wait for a cherished TV show if one can instantly stream it via the internet? Why hand write a letter if one can email, or why email if one can text, or now, why text if one can Tweet? Indeed, Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, recently said that convenience is the driver of everything we invent.
That fact, for me, is frightening. As I discussed in last Sunday’s Easter message, challenges may not be enjoyable when we are in the midst of them, but by enduring and persevering through inconvenience, we find a new awareness about ourselves and about life. It’s ironic but true that we cannot fully know what joy is unless we know its alternative – pain and struggle.
For me, my goal is to self-actualize and become more enlightened, more capable, more loving, and more at peace. Technology can help me achieve that goal but it must not supplant it. In other words, if I can use a word processor to write better Sunday messages, that’s a good thing. But if I use computers to replace my critical thinking abilities, what have I become? Technology can be a useful extension of me, but it can also become a destructive replacement of me – erasing all the things that make me – me.
I imagine I’m like most of you. I find meaning in what I do – my work, my service to others, my love, my thoughts, ideas and opinions. If I use technology to do those things for me, I’ve ceased to really exist – I’ve stopped meeting the criteria of Blaise Pascal, the famous enlightenment philosopher who said, “I think, therefore I am.”
If I don’t think, if I don’t work, if I don’t struggle, cry, hurt and deeply feel – all because technological conveniences now do those for me – then I am nothing. My very soul – the essence of my being – will have died.
And that, I claim, is a stark danger for me, for you, and for all humanity. In his book 2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur Clarke explored the theme of how tools and technology affect humanity. Hal, the all-knowing and all-seeing computer in his film, has progressed in artificial intelligence to the point that humans are irrelevant and even dangerous to its existence. Hal then kills almost all of the humans on their spaceship. But Clarke made sure that one astronaut in his story wakes up to the threat and puts Hal under his control. Clarke’s moral is that humanity can and will harness the good from technology – while preventing its dangers.
That is wishful thinking in my opinion. For me, it all comes down to a human spiritual malaise – one that often leads people to think only of themselves and their comfort. The easier, more pleasurable and more hardship-free our lives are, the better. Unless we as humans understand that selfish character flaw in us, and work to overcome it, I believe we will continue the headlong pursuit of technological convenience at the expense of taking the inconvenient road less traveled.
As I said earlier, I don’t believe we should abandon all technology. Clearly, advances in medicine, transportation and computation have improved human life. But I do believe that technological advances have also compounded to the astonishing point – like the magic penny I earlier presented – such that each new innovation has the ability to fundamentally alter or even destroy our meaning and purpose.
If Pascal was right, that thinking implies existence, then if machines become capable of truly thinking, then they will have a form of life previously not imagined. And given the fact that the universe is governed by immutable laws of mathematics, machines that can calculate perfectly will easily outwit our imperfect brains. Much like homo sapiens evolved beyond and ultimately replaced lesser hominids like Neanderthals, machines could evolve and replace us.
The solutions to this troubling possibility are simple. First, we must stop believing that technology is benign – that it’s neither good for bad. As tools created by humans, technology will reflect our qualities . As such, we must intentionally design technologies so that they reflect our good values. We’ve seen the importance of this with recent revelations about facebook. Initially, it was hailed as a way to bring people together. It can be a force for good that encourages values we hold dear – democracy, equality, human connection and coexistence. But just as facebook is used as a force for good, it is also used as a force for evil – spreading falsehoods, hate, bigotry and maliciously encouraging disunity and anti-democratic forces. That must not be allowed. We must demand facebook programmers, engineers and executives design its technology so that it protects and enhances our universal values – or else abandon it..
The second solution is to willingly embrace inconvenience and do more things on our own – without advanced technology. We must accept and embrace the challenge of learning, struggling, overcoming and thereby bettering our human condition.
By implementing these solutions, we will take the road less traveled – the one of less selfishness, high ideals, and difficulty. Our purpose is not to merely survive as easily as we can, but to thrive – and that can only come as we balance the conveniences of technology with the challenges of our values – work, persistence, service to others, learning and, yes, enduring hardship. Embracing inconvenience is one path, a road less taken, that will make all the difference……
And I wish you much thoughtful peace and joy.