If I ask you to single out an important aspect, a thing or a service of your generation that did not exist before and it is now something ubiquitous or at least part of your normal life, what would you say? Snapchat? Twitter? An iPhone? Google?
Or if I also ask you about an important aspect, a thing or a service of the generation of your parents that did not exist before and it become part of their normal life, what would that be? Internet? A laptop? A train going at 300 kph?
Of course in these last three or four decades there have been many social, political and economic changes but it is hard to think of an aspect of our lives that has suffered a revolution similar to the one introduced by technology.
And that is the subject of this talk: “Think technology”. And, even if this talk is not going to be far from that, it is not about new discoveries in artificial intelligence. It is not about technology that can think but about thinking about technology. Strangely enough we talk, work and do much more research on the first topic — how to make machines think, or at least to make them “intelligent” or “smart” — than on the second one, that is thinking about machines and what this digital turn means for us.
You may not remember this advert but your parents may. If you pay attention the grammar is a bit odd as “different” is modifying a verb — it is an adverb — it should be written “think differently”, unless, as Steve Jobs reportedly said, it is not about thinking in a different way than the one we are used to but to think what is different, similar to saying “think beauty”, or “think big”.
It is about rethinking technology. Thinking technology from the perspective of the technological revolution of our days and not from history or inherited concepts.
What is interesting is that if our gadgets, and websites, and apps, and wearables are just one or two generations old the reason why we do not think much about technology has a much older origin. At least 2500 years old.
Here, in Oxford, we have felt the influence of two civilisations that have given more shape to the way we think than maybe all of the other civilisations put together: the Greeks, and the Judeo-Christians. Into these traditions, technology has been taught eminently in just one way. To make things easier I will ask you to follow me by way of three still images given by three thinkers; snapshots in this film of history. Not for the sake of history or to talk about an academic topic but to allow us to think technology from another perspective.
You may have heard of or read about this man; his name was Aristotle and somebody said that he was the gift that the gods made to the Greeks in order that they may know all things.
If you think of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg as a genius, compare them to somebody who gave us the definition of physics, the soul, man and mankind, the classification of plants and animals, the way to take ethical decisions and what many other things and concepts would be for more than two millennia.
Now, what did Aristotle say about technology?
Well, he said that it is just “applied science”. As many other people in this planet, he thought that the best of man is in his mind, that body and sensorial experience are not that important; what is necessary to cultivate is pure thinking. Intelligence is one of the main characteristics of mankind and that means to “read” what it is written by the creator or in the design of the whole nature. To read everything that exists.
That is why still until today we insist on maths, physics and natural sciences as being “superior” to arts or gymnastics. Discovery, calculus and logic come before creativity. It is true, this is changing — mainly for economic reasons —, but still almost all our education systems are based on this approach.
For Aristotle, observation of nature was the most important activity we can have. And if we observe carefully we will have knowledge, we will know, for example, that there are three kingdoms: the mineral, the vegetable and the animal; that this tree is part of the second kingdom, to this family of trees, etc. If afterwards someone used oak to make a hammer instead than bamboo Aristotle did not really cared much about it. That is just technology. We have applied science — the classification of woods by their hardness — to make a tool. But what we really need to do, what is essential to all of us, is to think, and to know, and — implicitly — do nothing. If the poor artisan is there making hammers it is because he did not choose rightly, or he could not choose rightly. He is doing something that is accessory to mankind, that is, Aristotle would say, an accident, something that might or might not happen. An accident is what it is not necessary to happen. Technology is not necessary to be a man but thinking and intelligence are. Still nowadays there are people, some of them in education, who think the same, who are contemplating ideas without caring much about conclusions, about the practical side of it.
But before Aristotle — in books at least 200 years before him, and surely telling stories that circulated for many centuries — there is an approach that is much more fun and has a good chance of being a better fit for us in order to think technology.
The story goes like this: Zeus gives Prometheus the task of distributing qualities and powers to the living creatures, but Prometheus leaves the task to his twin brother Epimetheus. Epimetheus will act in his place. The twin brother hands out all the qualities to the living creatures, some can swim, others can fly, some have fur, some sleep in winter to keep their energy… but forgets to keep one quality for the human being. Prometheus comes back, sees the situation, and to solve the problem decides to steal the fire from Zeus and give it to mankind. (Later on Prometheus will stand judgement for this and will be condemned to an eternal punishment for what he did; you may have heard of it). But what is the fire for? This fire, which is the real fire but also a metaphor for the fire of the spirit, the intelligence, will allow men to invent artefacts and so become capable of developing all qualities.
Prometheus stole technology from the gods and gave it to human beings. The fire — understood as thinking and intelligence — was given for the sake of technology.
There is a philosopher who explains this in detail, Bernard Stiegler. He is French and lives in Paris. That is a strange condition for a philosopher; usually philosophers have many different attributes but being alive is not one of them.
Now, the differences here between what we saw of Aristotle and this new approach are clear. For Aristotle man has everything in himself or in nature, he must just sit, observe and think, or go to school and think. Whatever it comes as a modification of the world from that thinking is accessory; it is just some technology of dubious use.
For Stiegler man lacks everything. He has nothing to begin with. The very condition of a human is not knowing how to survive, he will need to use natural elements and recombine them, or to use the strength of other animals, to survive.
The human being will need technology to survive. To continue sustaining what he is. Technology is not an accident for the human being; it is a need.
Now, talking about the human being and the other animals and how to survive, of whom do we think?
Charles Darwin. And you know there is a bit of an argument here in Oxford with people who studied in Cambridge… — no, it is not true, it has been called “Oxbridge” in the end — but we must nevertheless recognise that Darwin had some pretty good ideas.
What would he say in this case? That a species can develop a skill by transmitting its genetic code to the next. Afterwards, it has been called evolution. A fish with a good build can manage its fins better and, as a consequence, it can survive when other fish are trying to catch it. It will have descendants with the same skills which then reproduce between them and some million of years after that a fish can fly! It may be that in the end it is no longer a fish but it has feathers and has become a bird.
What would man do? Of course there is the evolution of man and we were similar to the chimpanzees before, but, apart from that, what it is that man can do that most of other animals can’t? We can invent something to fly.
And even not as a bird would do — have you seen videos of the first attempts to fly, when the engineers were copying the birds? — but with knowledge of how aerodynamics works.
What is the other aspect that Darwin explains about the way animals evolve? The interaction with the environment. He would say that those that are more apt to cope or take advantage of the environment will live longer and, as a consequence, reproduce more. The bear with more fur will survive better, the bee that flies better will gather more pollen.
Now, if we think carefully, all our technological gadgets are extensions of ourselves or ways to cope with the environment. Instead of fur we develop jackets. Instead of looking for a cave we build houses with heating; distancing ourselves from nature.
The same happens with medicine. An animal with a particular enzyme or build will survive better, but the one ill will die and reproduce less. We, humans, will try to cure the condition instead, and the survival will happen in the same individual instead of the next generations.
I do not have good eyesight; I wear contact lenses. But not just that, I can develop a telescope and see so far that thousands of year travelling at the light speed would not bring me there. I can invent a microscope and see atoms. I can develop new ways to see; I can see heat or magnetic or even, now, gravitational fields.
Or, instead of shouting as much as I can; I can invent a device that transports my voice, reaching the other side of the planet. And why just the voice and not my image? And so on.
Gadgets, devices and systems are extensions of ourselves. Extensions of our senses, of our arms, hands, of our whole body and life.
There is this video of Steve Jobs whom I find inspiring. He explains the point perfectly and goes a little beyond.
“The equivalent of a bicycle for our minds”. That does not sound like Aristotle anymore. First, we are talking of extensions of ourselves, especially of our bodies with the technologies we know and, second, of our minds (by the way, in the end there is not as big a difference between body and mind as we may want to believe).
There is one more aspect we are not used to thinking about when we consider technology. We think of the tools and the way we can take advantage of them or protect ourselves from the environment — and hopefully to protect the environment as well — and we think that a machine can play chess better than we can but we usually forget that technology is also a way to preserve our memories. Not just memories in the sense of nice moments we spend on holiday, or in memory of some hero, but the memory of everything we have learnt, have felt and that we think is worth keeping and passing on to other people and future generations.
There are three types of memory.
All animals and plants have the first type — the genetic memory — that is the one we were talking about on Darwin’s theory. Animals and plants write down in their genes the shape of the feathers or the formula for the pollen and transmit that to the next exemplar of the species.
Then, there is another type of memory, the epigenetic memory. This is over the genes (epi). It is the memory of things I have learned during my life. I know how to walk, I can walk in a natural way, without thinking, but it is something I have learnt to do. It is somehow written in my brain and in my muscles. The same happens when I play a musical instrument. It happens with my name as well; I have my name written in my brain and I call that variable every time that somebody asks my name.
Lastly, there is one type of memory that only humans have (and in a way machines); it is called epiphylogenetic. The name is hard but the concept is easy. What do we do when we want to remember something? We write it down. Or we take a photo. What do we do when we develop a way of doing a complex task, let us say, for example, of doing an experiment to cure cancer? We write it down, we give a talk at a conference, etc. This is the only memory that does not die when I die. Why? Because it is not written on me. It is not in my genes or in my brain. It is written in an external support. It may be on paper, a CD, a hard disk.
That is how humanity has become so great. That is how knowledge has been cumulating for years and years. And everyone has collaborated, some more some less, to this great sum of knowledge we have now. How far are we from Aristotle dismissing technology! He did not think that if it were not for the ink, the papyrus and parchments where his ideas were written his thought would not have any chance of lasting more than 2000 years.
We are in Oxford, that is what it is about. The sum of knowledge; an incredible accumulation of knowledge in the books and in the minds of the people who live, study and teach here. The Bodleian Library is like a genome of another kind; it is the genome of the human spirit.
But now that we think technology from this perspective, this is becoming even more thrilling and frightening than we may believe. It is not just something that we wear, or use or take for granted while we continue with our normal, natural lives. It is what we are. And every gadget or system defines the way we complete an action, if we have access or not to a place, if we are going to be cold, have a work, learn a language, meet somebody important for us, and a long etcetera.
Nowadays it is not just about the brands and institutions that work in the IT or digital realms. Every aspect of human knowledge and life is being adapted and rethought in this digital turn.
If we just delegate every aspect of our lives we had better think to whom we delegate it. It is frightening but it is also an opportunity. The opportunity to think and readapt, and reinvent our whole way of life. It is not about embracing all technology or rejecting all technology.
If we do not evaluate how many hours we play at computer games, spend time in Snapchat, learn to code, or read a book on paper — as we saw, books are a very important technology — other people will make the evaluation for us. And we risk loosing time and money, or missing the point of doing something that can be really valuable for us and for others.
To recap, we actually do not use technology we are technology. If we think technology in this way, it becomes a basis for many other things that we are. As I said, those devices and systems are extensions of ourselves, of our ways of life, and modifications of the world around us, of our environment.
Whatever we do in our profession or future profession — and in almost every other aspect of our lives — we will need tools and those tools will be integrated in a technological system. Those tools will be extensions of ourselves, parts of ourselves. At such point that they may define or determine what we will be.
So, if I may give an advice, use technology wisely, be part of it, and, more importantly, think technology. Many thanks.
Talk given at Universify Education tasting classes.