Monday, October 12, 2009

Technically Responsible

Many years ago my wife and I had dinner with a friend of mine, who is a very talented theatre director, and performer. His work was inspiring to me, and I would generally see anything he did. I must admit though, as with my free jazz performances, his style of experimental theatre did not attract very large audiences. He made a statement to us, which at the time I thought rather pretentious. He said that he did not care if there was an audience at all. He would do his performance every night in an empty theatre if he had to, and still feel the same power and importance for creating a unique art. He felt no responsibility to an audience, only to himself. I would later find that many great and even successful artists's, whether it was Miles Davis, or Ingmar Bergman cared little about the audience. In both of those cases the audiences came anyway, as they should have, because the art was so special. For those of us whose art does not appeal to large groups however, we can still continue to perform. The idea of responsibility to an audience is actually a huge distraction for the most part, as we may very well choose quantity over quality. In the arts we also need to be honest with ourselves, especially if we play free jazz or do experimental theatre. No matter whether we have a relatively big audience or not, it doesn't make such a difference. Either the product will live on, or not, but the moment is fleeting. It is also not exactly perfect to speak about responsibility to an audience, as even a bad performance won't be genocide, a famine, a world war or even a hangover. It will just be an unpleasant hour or two in a theatre. While this may be true in the arts, as a scientist, or a technologist there is much more at stake.

Many mornings when I am going to work I listen to Podcasts from the Stanford Literature Professor Robert Harrison called "Entitled Opinions". I highly recommend this podcast, as it is both entertaining and educational. Also for those of you that work in Academic Science or Technology it will be a huge change for you, as it was for me. Dr. Harrison is a classicist, and literary intellect, who while respecting and even hosting scientists from time to time, can be critical of modern society's manic drive to innovate, without particular attention to long term consequences. Though this may seem obvious, it is far from it for those of us who read and respect some of history's great scientific discoveries. I have often repeated a famous quote by Richard Feynman, who in addition to being a Nobel Laureate Physicist also worked on the Atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. This is what Feynman said:

"scientific technology improves production, but we have trouble with automation. It brings about advances in medicine, but then we worry about the number of births and the fact that no one dies from the diseases we have eliminated. It produces rapid air transportation, but it also makes possible the severe horrors of air war. In a sense, science is like a key that can open the gates to heaven or hell. Which portal the key unlocks depends on the humans who employ it."

Often I and many other scientists working on theories or in labs even tend to use this as an excuse. In fact I am so convinced that this is a good statement that I think it is expressing something almost necessary in our evolution as a species. It is a desire to understand the universe of the large and small, and the mechanisms by which it functions. In doing that we uncover new ways to extend our lives, such as medicine, bio-engineering and even more futuristic notions such as neuro-regeneration and the downloadable brain. This seems to me to be what we must do. What Dr. Harrison and his guests put in perceptive for me is that we cannot pursue science and technology in intellectual isolation. Isolation has several relevant meaning here. Often when working on complex equations or experiments we physically and politically isolate ourselves, almost out of necessity. It is just too hard to lose focus. Maybe more importantly we isolate ourselves philosophically. I have written in this blog before of a convergence of art, science and philosophy, and how our specialized Academic world can limit our experience, and even hold back progress in the fields we work in. What I think of more now however is how working without recognition and understanding of philosophy can be dangerous, and counterproductive to human progress. Certainly the bomb is an obvious one. It was hard working, brilliant scientists' pursuing an idea which could lead to destruction. But what about the seemingly smaller efforts we make? For example, what about the impact of a new material, not only on our environment but on our interaction with nature and other people? My French father in law and I have had many arguments about progress. He is an extremely educated polymath, who worked as an engineer, but is equally proficient in quoting Victor Hugo, and Chateaubriand by memory at the dinner table. With all of this knowledge, as well as the fact that he has used computers since computers were becoming personal, he has always told me that society should be conscious of the "arbre de connaissance". For many years I thought that his idea was anti-democratic. The free flow of information and the ability for everyone to participate through the internet is one of the luckiest benefits of being alive in the 21rst century. But he is right. Without thought of consequence, knowledge alone is not progress. Advances in science and technology require responsibility. The reason this is truer now than ever, is that not just academics are using and creating sophisticated technologies. Nearly everyone is a technologist, no matter what field they work in. Still, with these new technologies, and our constant innovation we have the same human struggles we have always had. We face our own mortality. Unlike Epicurus, and other great philosophers though, we tend to not address that mortality metaphysically, but rather physically or religiously. For the non religious, like me, we try to conquer death through invention. Reading great literature or philosophy though, puts us back in the same boat as all humans in recorded history. Suddenly we realize that we must continue to innovate, but if we do so only with tools and not the mind we will be alone. We must think of technology as a responsibility. We are no longer playing to ourselves in an empty theatre, even if it feels like it.



  1. Matthew, wonderful post and absolutely spot-on. I would even argue that it does apply to art and the "entertainments." After all, certain forms of nihilistic or violent self-expressions can have a destructive or dissociative influence on the viewer, which in turn can affect how a person may use or mis-use technological advances. So I believe that "thought of consequences" should be an aspect of all forms of artistic creation, be it technological innovation or other types of self-expression.

  2. Thanks for the nice comment. That is certainly an important point that I want to make. That everyone who posts a YouTube video is now using technology that has the potential to reach millions of people. i think the distinction with a traditional technologist, or scientist even, is that only professionals have had the chance to create things that let the cat out of the bag. That is, once something has been invented, you can’t uninvent it, even if for society’s sake you wish you could. One example where art through technology might have the same sort of power would be religion or politics using it to brain wash a society. Goebbels was an expert of that pre-internet. I can only imagine what a sick genius like that could accomplish now. Good thing Karl Rove was no technical wiz!


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.