Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has brought us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures that that entails.
Super computers can do all sorts of things but they can do nothing on their own. Yet increasingly we believe that technology will save us. Take for instance the failed test and trace system in the UK, outsourced to private companies, costing the taxpayer billions, completely ineffective.
Touchingly we still believe that someone, somewhere must understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. Yet this is simply not true. Systems are installed. It is assumed that they work. Or they do work but not in ways that we think. Where is the oversight that we need?
For example, in March 2020, food supplies in the UK faltered. They didn’t fail, thank goodness but they definitely ‘creaked’. Why was this? As it turned out, the reason the supermarkets couldn’t cope with the sudden extra demand was because their stocktaking and storage models all rely on algorithms, which put one of each item on the shelf and leave one of each item spare until the next delivery. (OK I exaggerate but not much). Thus when demand for certain products skyrocketed, the food giants stood looking stupid or blamed the ‘consumer’ for behaving in ways that their computers had not foreseen. Meanwhile real human beings on minimum wages were left to try and sort out the mess that had been caused by our blind faith in technology.
Surely we must temper our mindless belief in the ability of technology – often that we do not understand ourselves – to solve all our problems! That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.
Another scandal in the UK that has recently come to light concerned post office sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, many of whom were accused of theft when they couldn’t balance their accounts. Some went to prison. Some lost their homes. Some were forced to repay money. Some have died without ever seeing their names cleared. It turned out that none of the accused had taken anything, the shortfalls had been caused by faults in the ‘Horizon’ accounting software which the Post Office with the blind faith of the foolhardy defended and continues to defend against its own people. Their continued belief in the faulty system is mind boggling for its sheer stupidity. No-one asked whether it was ever likely that 550 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses all decided to engage in illegal activities at the same time! Meanwhile the Post Office continued to call their system ‘robust’ and insist that the ‘glitches’ have been fixed. People’s lives may have been ruined, but the ‘glitches’ have been fixed.
We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”
But wisdom and philosophy have gone out the window. Rather than being guided by an underlying philosophy, modern society seems to operate on a strapline. The computer never lies. But this is not just a matter of one or other pieces of software going disastrously wrong. The problem runs much deeper. The problem lies with an education system which has lost its way, which now sees its role as vocational training for the corporate market, rather than a method of producing free thinking individuals with vision, empathy and ability.
Massive tech companies take on people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves. Nationalism begins here, with treating people as subservient to some great economic directive.
Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:
“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).
Nationalists in other words don’t like people with artistic vision. To such an extent that erosion of the arts becomes a politicial imperative.
We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.
“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”
A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House. Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.
When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January (2017) for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.
In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The likely from the plain stupid. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. It is not certain that voters exhibited a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement. Nor is it certain voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender. Rather it seems that voters were swayed by nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical. That is a situation which suits a certain political agenda just fine.
Interestingly one of the books I am currently reading is a memoire written by Hunter Biden – son of Joe – in which he says predicting the leave vote in the UK was not rocket science – one only had to look at the rise of populism and nationalist governments around the globe to see that particular bit of writing on the wall. With the wisdom of hindsight, he was so right.
There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Funding of the arts and humanities is being constantly eroded – and not just in schools although this is where the lack of investment begins. Conductor Sir Simon Rattle recently announced his departure from the London Symphony Orchestra even though he had been expected to stay for many more years. He has previously criticised the UK for lack of a serious commitment to music. No doubt an additional reason is that he was horrified by brexit and is a committed European. His wife is Czech and his children go to school in Berlin.
Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world. They develop empathy. Of course it can be said that the sciences do this too. A love of poetry and music do not automatically make one a wonderful person but they do offer a creative vision, a way of thinking that embraces the natural world. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how some physical bits of the world work, but they are not great at developing empathy. The humanities teach us to transcend cultural barriers.