Each of Yuval Noah Harari’s books are bestsellers. They tackle big questions. “Sapiens” describes the history of humanity. “Sapiens” explores the long term future of mankind. And “21st lessons for the 21st century” looks at our century ahead.
In his latest book, about 21 lessons, Harari buys into the promise of algorithms helping us with decision-making. Smart algorithms, trained with large sets of data, are superior in drawing objective conclusions than people, and that can benefit us. I also see the benefits, particularly in optimizing business operations. However, Harari cites different kinds of examples. He speaks about his own years of “coming out of the closet”, and argued that had there been algorithms that could tell you about your orientation and where you fit on the scale, this would have saved a lot of struggle and doubt. He uses the example of someone starting studying law, but has very different expectation. An algorithms would have helped. Or a ballerina pursuing a career despite having the wrong bone structure. An algorithm would have prevented disappointment.
I think we all have examples of disappointment in our lives. I recall accepting a job I shouldn’t have (and in hindsight I realized I knew it beforehand).
In the current #digitalsociety project I am involved it, Digitopia 2035, we see the same idea. People see technology as a means to bring convenience. Why do things the hard way?
But is that really the case? What is the role of technology? Humans are not strong, not fast, but we are smart. We are technological beings. Our evolutionary advantage is being able to create our own advantage.
With this is mind, we can sharpen our question. From “what is the role of technology” to “how does humanity benefit most from technology?”. I do realize that laziness is an endless source of inspiration to come up with ways not having to do something anymore, but I think technology serves as a means of making new things possible.
If technology is mostly a source of convenience, it creates distance between people and the world; reality. The most beautiful definition of reality I know is “reality is resistance to the will”. We truly get in touch with reality when there is a gap between how we want to see things, and how they are. And what would be more beautiful to use technology to realize what we have in mind.
Now, life doesn’t have to be a struggle, but there is a relationship between convenience and value. Imagine being able to plug a thumb drive in your ear and all of a sudden speak French, or play the violin. Is your appreciation for the skill as high as having had to study for it for years? I don’t think so. If technology makes all of your life convenient, would that improve the value of life? I doubt it. I am sure this stems from my Northern European Calvinist background.
Obviously we can have differing opinions. Some dream of a Bentley to cruise the highway, others prefer a Hummer to conquer the desert.
These two philosophies should coexist. They help each other. Imagine a life without dishwasher, car and other convenience technological mean. You wouldn’t have time to think about making new things possible. And vice versa, usually Formula 1 car racing technology stretching the boundaries down the road lands in consumer cars.
But it is a fundamental question, particularly in your company’s efforts towards digital transformation. What is the role of technology? And what value proposition do you have your customers to offer?
Frank Buytendijk (@FrankBuytendijk) is a Research Fellow with Gartner Research & Advisory. He pioneers in the field of digital philosophy and ethics, the #digitalsociety and pragmatic futurism.