Einstein on technology:
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
More and more Americans feel threatened by runaway technology, by large-scale organization, by overcrowding. More and more Americans are appalled by the ravages of industrial progress, by the defacement of nature, by man-made ugliness. If our society continues at its present rate to become less livable as it becomes more affluent, we promise all to end up in sumptuous misery.
The rational mind is a faithful servant and the intuitive mind is a sacred gift. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.
The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.
The most important and urgent problems of the technology of today are no longer the satisfactions of primary needs or of archetypal wishes, but the reparation of the evils and damages by technology of yesterday.
The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
- It brings with it the myth that only the part of the world that can be used by technology is real.
- What do you mean by myth?
- A late nineteenth century philosopher called myth a story relating the visible to the invisible. Actually it is a relation between a visible world described technically, with defined parts observed to be in regular relation to each other, to other aspects of human experience not describable in those terms.
- You're saying a myth already involves technology?
- Yes. Mumford in our own times said the first technology was in the organization of people into specialized roles 5000 years ago in the ancient empires of the Middle East. The non-technical part of the story was that making things was good in itself because it was for the god, gods, or pharaoh.
- I don't get it. Why should we care about the pharaoh or the gods?
- And why should we believe it is always good to do things better, larger, faster? To whose benefit is it? Merely having the idea itself of the infinite seemingly has value for us. Embody the idea of infinite technical progress in a human form, and you have your explanation of the role played by gods and pharaohs. They are place-holders for the infinite.
- Why do we need the idea of the infinite?
- At the end of World War I the French poet Paul Valery wrote an essay (Crisis Of The Mind) in which he defined our society as a combination of unbounded, "infinite" mysticism and logical, skeptical investigation. He said we were reaching a crisis because our technology had spread to the entire world. Even the practice of arts did not stop Germany from becoming the foremost example of the negative effects of technology, a paradox that would become even more apparent the second time around in World War II. The spread of technology was doing something to the Western techniques of mysticism and skeptical investigation that was skewing the results towards destruction rather than creation. Do you know the cause?
- No. Do you? What did Valery say?
- That we'd made the mistake of letting our unique creative force become proportional to the mass practice of technology, with the result we were being overwhelmed. We we the victim of our "intellectual physics". In one concluding sentence he said our saving would be in studying how the individual, not the group, could resist this progress.
- So what can an individual do?
- We have to study the relation of ideas to technology, come to understand clearly what is going on. Learn the intellectual physics.
- And you I suppose are into intellectual physics. What have you learned?
- The reason the Nazis loved art is that art had been made the means to the end of technical advancement.
- In a technical organization each person has to stay in role and respond as specified to other role players, everyone must follow the script. No one is allowed to respond for their own reasons, in accord with their particular personal experience for the sake of their own personal goals. But imagine each in his professional role is allowed, or rather ordered, to smile.
- Like at McDonalds.
- For example. Everyone involved might feel better as a result, despite the artificial nature of the situation, the mere suggestion that we be good spirited which the imitation smile produces might do some good. But not much, because acting on what the smile suggests is blocked by the rules of employment.
- The McDonalds smile is like the Nazis "sensitivity" to art.
- Yes. An article published today in the Harvard Business Review says it succinctly: previously it was fashionable to appear unfeeling, now it is fashionable to appear kind; if you want to sell more of your products you therefore have to associate your product with the appearance of kindness.
- The expression of emotion is used as part of the machine. But how?
- As the new "god", the unseen part of the world, our inner selves, that myth puts in relation to the seen, the part manipulated by our technology.
- So you are describing a technology of myth?
- As good a definition of propaganda as I have ever heard.
- Still, it's weird. Why do we need myth at all?
- Because technology only expresses one side to our nature.
- But why should it exclude the other sides?
- Because as it did in its beginning it still tends to make human beings into parts of a machine.
- But why?
- Because once people take on different vocations, they decide not simply to exchange what they make for what others make, but to adapt themselves to others so they can exchange better. Better means more regularly.
- They study a technology of exchange.
- Yes. And the more someone acts for the sake of pleasing others, the less he acts for the sake of getting what he has learned is good for himself. This movement from acting entirely for reasons drawn from one's own experience, to doing what others ask because it will make acting with others more regular, is what accounts for the myth, for what the myth tells a story about: a known world of describable transaction, and an unknown, unseen world.
- Why don't other people say this, if this is true?
- Other people do say it. Rousseau in the 18th century, Plato in the 5th century BC.
- What did Plato say exactly?
- Knowing a myth of technology was inevitable the way things were going, and had to go, he wrote that myth himself, with the greatest possible technical skill he could draw upon.
- What did he hope to achieve?
- What else than to show as clearly as possible the parts of human nature left out.
- But you said, talking about the Nazis and the Mcdonalds smile, they weren't left out.
- They are left out of possibility for individual application. The server at McDonalds can't easily make friends with the customer, the Nazi soldier celebrating transcending human limitations listening to the music of Beethoven uses transcendence not to become an artist himself but to overcome his private resistance to carrying out the murders he is ordered to perform.
- If Plato showed as clearly as possible the parts of human nature left out of a technological society how come no one except you and Rousseau sees this clear demonstration?
- Others have seen it.
- In recent times, Leo Strauss, his student Alan Bloom. Plato's medieval interpreters, both Christian and Arab understood. Renaissance artists understood. The Romans didn't understand, just as we in our times don't understand.
- Why is that?
- Because specialization of roles had progressed too far for mysticism to be the product of the technology of an individual's life, his own experience and judgement, for technology to be means to the end of having the mystical experience of beauty, a private story that cannot be made general in myth.
- My generation is trying to change, we don't want to believe in myths. We value community.
- How do you value community? On the way here I saw a fellow at a folding table he'd set up on a street corner with a sign that said "Empathy, 5 cents". I went over, and do you know what? I didn't feel any sympathy with this guy, not with the hard way he was looking me.
- You didn't give him a chance.
- I did. Asked him why he was doing this. He said he was giving something back to the community, was showing not everything was for money.
- But that's good.
- No it's not! It's just another myth. More McDonalds Smiles, Nazi art.
- That's ridiculous!
- Ridiculous? How is the supposed empathy he is giving going to be the product of either his or his customer's self reflection, self correction, and study of individual experience? I could see in his eyes he didn't like me, that was his experience as an individual, though in words he was expressing unanimity and good will to all.
- He didn't like you because you were challenging him.
- Yes. Challenging his community that was based on nothing but intention, that was, as I've been saying, as isolated as the McDonald's smile and as meaningless as the Harvard Business Reviews' advice there's money to be made being nice.
- Then what is to be done?
- We need to know the intellectual physics, how technology creates the myth of technology.
- And the myth of technology leads us to want more technology.
- Yes. We need to know how that machine works.
- The machine of how what we do makes what we think?
- And then what?
- When we know how it works we can change how it works.
- We'll have a technology. Don't we have it, at least a little?
- We haven't as far as I know made any progress since Plato laid out the problem clearly in The Republic.
- So you think that at this late moment in history we can finally make that beginning?
- Would you prefer we don't try?
From Paul Valéry's Crisis of the Mind:
And so the scales that used to tip in our favor, although we appeared the lighter, are beginning to lift us gently, as though we had stupidly shifted to the other side the mysterious excess that was ours. We have foolishly made force proportional to mass!
This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals.
An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics.
- What changed in the past few years?
- Not me, not the way I lived. The world changed. Everyone tells me I have to meet the world half way, I have to expect good and it will come.
- You don't think they're right?
- I tell them I expected good would come, and it came. For a long time I had good luck. And then I expected good and it didn't come. How do they explain that?
- What do they say?
- They laugh.
- Sorry, I'm laughing too.
- Go right ahead. A story began the moment the rule stopped working, and I love stories.
- What's the story?
- My story? I made an attempt to figure out what had happened and what to do about it.
- And? What did you figure out?
- I told a story of how developing technological society had expanded into all the unoccupied corners I had worked my life into, and I got squeezed out. And I'd had such a low opinion of that organization I was taken by surprise. I thought that if I wanted I could, once I got tired of being out, slip back in unnoticed. That turned out not to be true: I was spotted from a distance and blocked before I took more than a step. Do you know what I think? How I was identified so easily?
- No. How?
- By my stories.
- Is there something special about your stories?
- No. But having a story at all has become special and undesirable.
- Why? And I don't agree. People still have stories and still like telling them.
- What is opposite to having a story?
- No, far from it. The opposite to having a story is excitement and ecstasy. Pornographic and mystical excitement and ecstasy.
- Are you saying there is nothing remarkable or moving in ecstasy and sex?
- I'm saying that there should be a personal, non quantifiable story leading up to the remarkable and moving experience.
- Should be for what?
- For you not be be caught up in the technological myth.
- Tell me again: what is the technological myth?
- To be always doing. Doing more, better, faster, more often. All that happens when we are still - perception of beauty, truth, good - is left out.
- But pornography and mysticism are not actions, are they?
- No. They are a special kind of perception.
- What kind?
- The kind that is quantifiable, measurable. That we can learn to do better, more often, and quicker.
- I don't follow.
- I mean something straightforward: pornographic objects are meant to arouse quickly, and accomplish this by extremes of quantity in measurements of immediately visible, repeatedly seen shapes. Access to mystical experience can be practiced so it can be more lasting, reached quicker and more often.
- There is a technology to having these experiences, pornographic and mystical.
- People looking for pornographic and mystical experiences have a kind of story that ties them to the technological world. So?
- So pornography and mystical exercise increase the influence and pervasiveness of technology in society. When people are tied closer into the technological emphasis on doing they more easily forget what they are not doing, forget the possibility of good feeling in the world not tied to quantity and speed and efficiency. Forget the experience of beauty.
- That's why you called the worship of speed and quantity and efficiency in the technological myth a "place holder" for the infinite? Because it was without beauty?
- Yes. Someone caught up in an organized world gets out of practice learning how to see individuals, reflect on one's own private experience. It is easier to step from the lack of individual practice in technological society to the lack of individual practice of pornography and mystical exercises. That ease or efficiency is part of the technological myth authorizes such a move.
- Having a real story is not easy.
- In both respects: not easy to have a story at all, and any story worth having is not going to be easy.
- Physicists agree that the conception of matter they use, particles in movement, fields which move particles, is incoherent.
- Incoherent how?
- A thing is an idea: a collection of sights of certain shapes and other qualities that remain over time. A billiard ball is round and hard and heavy. That the ball stays in the same place or moves, we imagine through the idea of energy, which is a packet of invisible movement that is passed on from one ball to another, or one ball to itself. We can't imagine how that passing on happens.
- Why do the physicists say?
- Matter is crazy but it works. Einstein solved the problem of passing on at a distance presented by gravitational force by imagining curved space time, but no one can really imagine it. String theory, likewise. There are speculations that all of nature is a set of fields of energy which influence each other, a continuous merging, but the problem remains how the movement of force is communicated to things. We still can't imagine it.
- What can we imagine then?
- That our mental life is as it appears to us.
- How does it appear?
- As conscious. That means things, and awareness we are seeing things, or imagining them, or remembering them. We have perception, and awareness of perception at the same time.
- What is awareness?
- Yes: it is not simply a perception of perception. It is also the source of movement of our own body, and understanding, looking down on what "stands under" us, the movement of other bodies along with our own.
- We take responsibility for constructing over time, in our own history, the things we see.
- For making our perceptions.
- Yes. When we stand above and look down on it, in every thing we see a history, one sight after another. Then when imagining matter passing on energy, or energy passing on movement to matter, we incorporate elements of our experience of consciousness. It is a kind of stop and go at once, and it confuses us.
- The stop being the ideas, the definitions of a thing. And the go, awareness of movement that we get from consciousness.
- But matter is not conscious.
- No. We can't conceive of material science except as of things carrying on their backs little packages of consciousness.
- Crazy but it works.
- It works, but what are we to think when our science is setting out to prove consciousness depends on the material world?
- We're to think it's crazy too, but it works. What do you think?
- Physical things with their backpacks of invisible movement have nothing in common with mental things: love, beauty, truth, friendship, sympathy.
- How would you describe these mental things?
- As products of consciousness, they are movements.
- From where to where?
- From a world seen mechanically, which we want to escape, to a world of full awareness. We deliberately create the future out of the past.
- And when we are afraid, or angry?
- We carry packets of movement on our backs and pass them on to ourselves. We are passive, material like, we don't create.
- Can we imagine the world doing what we do - I mean, when we are going somewhere?
- We can, and many people try. The problem is, we can't know whether there is any pattern to the way we go back and forth between doing things in the world, and being conscious of ourselves in our achievement of getting out of the world. There may not be any rule. How well we take care of our confusions of being lost in the world depends on the world's response to our attempts. If we imagine the whole world acting like we do, attempting to get out of itself, there'd have to be a world outside it which it responded to, and we have of course no idea what that would be.
- So we don't know if the world is creative. And if we don't know, we can't imagine the energy of the things in the world being the world's conscious choice how to move things into better arrangements.
- But it might be a case of crazy but it works.
- Works how well? We don't know whether or how natural laws change or stay the same. Our economic structures appear like natural laws, and we believe they are unchanging things. We can ask whether state capitalism or federated cooperatives are more natural to human beings, but our answer might depend on when and for how long. We don't know.
- The movement we know from consciousness is the history that makes our perception of things, together with willing. How does the world look if we leave them out?
- As we see it when we are in love. Whole, unchanging.
- Everything that happens in the world is lined up and taken responsibility for as our perception, named as one thing, and loved?
- That's one way of putting it.
- Then what is matter and energy and the science of making predictions of how they affect one another?
- Something crazy but works.
- How does it work? Why does it work?
- Imagine we human beings weren't as we are now, organized by profession, social class, wealth, race. Imagine we were in the condition of nature as it is before it is made into a machine. What if I asked a human being, accustomed to making things in cooperatives, loving to give things away, if it were possible for people to live like we do now, whether it would work?
- I guess the question would arise, what did you mean by it working?
- I'd answer, it is done for its own sake.
- Our society is crazy but it works?
- In Plato there are a couple of interesting arguments for the immortality of the soul. A thing can be destroyed only by being changed into its opposite. Light to dark. Cold to hot. And life to death. Dark also can be changed to light, hot to cold, and death to life. Things which have parts can be taken apart, things which have no parts cannot be. The soul has no parts, therefore it cannot be taken apart. The soul has no opposite, so cannot be destroyed.
- Why do you bring this up?
- One way of looking at a machine is as taken apart life. A machine works with dead parts, each with their back packs of soul like energy. Can we imagine consciousness appearing somehow from reassembling the back packs of energy?
- A soul isn't supposed to have parts. It is either there or not.
- Have you thought about why?
- I wouldn't think of trying.
- I've already given you the answer, or one of them: if consciousness results from taking credit for the movement of one act and perception after another, to be still, when understanding that movement, it is essential that it be "one". It makes "one", and itself is what it makes.
- So though it makes itself out of pieces, what it is, when made, is one, not pieces?
- It goes when the pieces fall apart.
- And the pieces are not conscious.
- No. Science works with selecting things and putting them in relation, looking for a regular result, one kind of thing with another. The learning we arrive at is something like consciousness, arising out of putting ourselves together.
- Are you saying the world is conscious?
- No, only that the way we learn about the world, become conscious of the world, is the same way we become conscious of ourselves.
- And when we learn about another person? Is that becoming conscious of them too?
- We call it sympathy, love, concern.
- Consciousness, love, knowledge have the same form?
- Yes. Now Plato told this story, I'm sure you've heard it. Prisoners are chained in a cave watching shadows projected on the back wall of puppets paraded in front of a fire outside the cave entrance. They think they have real knowledge when they can successfully predict when one shadow follows another.
- I read it in school.
- The prisoners don't know themselves, each other, or the world. They cannot take responsibility for doing anything with what they see, or with the people they watch with. In the same way, when we make statistical studies of language, or of a population of people, with the intention of understanding how language works or what makes people tick, we are obtaining a kind of knowledge that does not involve consciousness. It is not real knowledge.
- What is it then?
- People getting together to make themselves into the machine they imagine some day will be made conscious. The soul is gone, replaced by a community of parts, each a statistician, each wearing the back pack of energy, bits of impersonal knowledge assembled in relation to the totality of other bits of impersonal knowledge.
- A kind of death.*
- Our model of the physical world, in which one thing touches another and communicates movement to it, hasn't worked since Newton and his gravitational force. A force is action at a distance. A mystery. When we try to understand the relation of things of the mind to things of the body, we fail, because we don't know what things of the body are.
- Can't we explain things of the body by things of the mind?
- Do we know about things of the mind?
- Not everything. But maybe enough to start.
- We start, and get stuck with metaphors: material things spoken of as solidifications of the mental, manifestations of the mental, even death of the mental.
- Physical metaphors to explain what a physical thing is. Going in a circle. Then what?
- We smash atoms against each other to produce particles, right? And try to learn how these particles affect each other. We create the particles ourselves, but maybe they teach us something. Similarly, we can take two activities in which we can see mind and body, and see how in the two activities, mind and body differ in relation to each other.
- I've read the argument. Thinking and action, self and world, defined and open compose the "particles" of mind and body that we create in our analysis. When the object of our thinking is the world, not noticing ourselves, and when we act, the object of our actions is our selves, the world unclear, that's the good way. The bad way is when the object of our thinking is ourselves, and the world unclear, and when we act the world is defined to us, our selves obscure. The second way has the consequence that when we look back on our personal history we can't see a story, because the arena of story is action, and we are unknown to ourselves while we act. Now, what are we supposed to do with these ideas? You develop them in some detail.** Creative action leading to thought of love. Or frightened action leading to vain security. But have we made the problem go away, by instead of talking about physical and mental things we talk about description of the self and world in thought and action?
- Our idea of a physical thing occurs only in one of the two ways.
- The destructive and discontinuous.
- In the other way, when you think, you see a beautiful world experienced as a whole, no separate things. When you act, the world is in the process of change, again with no stable, separate things. Imagine now the two sorts of people exchanging things between themselves for profit. Obviously those who are living with things are going to be more attracted by the idea of having more of them. It's hard to see how the other sort would be interested at all.
- Both sorts of people, those who forget themselves in action and see their own strength or weakness in their thought, and those who forget themselves when they see the world's beauty and are blind to world when they act in it, start practicing this new form of trade. For the first sort it fits right into with their usual way of acting. For the second sort though it is only a game. A game that immediately turns ugly when it comes out that the first sort will harm anyone to gain profit. By nature we sympathize with each other, would like to help and avoid hurting each other. But the kind of person who forgets himself in action and forgets his own story is the kind of person who can forget he has hurt someone, and will only help another when it profits himself.
- So the person who takes gain seriously, because he takes things seriously, is also the person who will harm others in the search for gain?
- Yes. Bad as that is, it gets worse. The kind of person who forgets himself is also the kind of person who, not understanding himself, does not understand others. He can recognize and feel safe only with others very like himself. With those he can't understand he feels in danger.
- The self forgetting stick together.
- Yes. One kind of person is willing to harm others in trading for gain, the other kind reluctant. The willing kind get together and make life difficult for the other by attempting to force the things in the world into an arrangement that will give them maximum gain. They force the other kind into a division of labor with themselves. The willingly harmful become one class, the unwilling become their servants. In time, unable to live as they did, the servants take on characteristics of their masters and see themselves too as things.
- You're saying that division of labor can be the result of market trading for gain.
- Division of labor also exists independent of markets, for example within families. Trade for profit creates a special kind of division of labor. Subordinating all personal and social goods to money making, it ends in defining people as things, dividing them from each other on the basis of kinds of lives they live, reaching the point where there is only one character but different relations in power, masters and servants.
- In scientific, technical, probabilistic, statistical knowledge, we look at the world as it is. We discover in it a machine: Do this kind of thing, That kind of thing follows. When we make happen what we prefer, we are satisfied, and go on to discover more machines that allow us to make other predictions about more or less preferable outcomes.
- And that's wrong?
- There's no rest.
- What about the satisfaction in being right in our predictions?
- We won the game, but there is no world outside the game. We have to start the game over again to get back into the world. We don't rest in the world.
- How do we rest in the world?
- We build the machine of knowledge in our own personal experience.
- We develop habits of doing things, and while we act, look out for those habits of ours that bring good results, cause the world to change in a way good for us. When we develop new habits with good results, we stop.
- We rest, looking back on both what we did, and the world we were acting in. We see a machine, a model, in which one part is ourselves, the other is the world, and all of it we stand back from, are aware of, are conscious of.
- What do we see when we've made our successful scientific predictions?
- A model of part of the world in relation to part of the world. We're not there.
- Then, if I understand you, the difference between statistical and personal knowledge is that in personal knowledge the model we use includes our own experience and give us rest, in statistical knowledge our model excludes our personal experience and never allows us rest.
- That's right.
- Has anyone ever told you you're a pretty negative guy?
- I'm a critical type of person who, in the machine of society, is likely to have more trouble than the accepting kind of person, someone more like yourself?
- Meaning I'm looking at you scientifically.
- Someone using the personal model can understand someone using the impersonal model, but not vice versa.
- Why not?
- Because the personal model, involving both self and world, can incorporate the scientific model as part of the world responded to. The scientific model leaves out personal experience entirely.
- Then how do people communicate with each other?
- How does a negative guy communicate with a positive guy?
- Yeah, how?
- The two sorts of model users have in common the world seen as a machine. The operator of the personal machine gets the attention of the operators of the impersonal machine by flourishing his expertise with it, and while he has their attention, reveals how the other machine makes use of it.
- But they can't understand, you've said.
- Not until they are operating it themselves. The demonstration gives the incentive to try. The medieval Middle Eastern philosopher Farabi described this as Philosophy standing back from the world but inspiring its laws, themselves only a shadow of the truth.***
- What you just said about Farabi, philosophy standing back from the world, the people inspired a bit but left to its own recourse: how are we ever going to progress?
- We don't have to make progress, only improve. Progress implies a continued improvement. A book published last year****, summarizing current anthropological and archaeological knowledge, concludes that societies mainly based on sharing and societies mainly based on division between masters and servants could be found in all periods of history. Maybe one kind develops out of another, but we as a species haven't gotten anywhere.
- Negative guy. The sharers operate with personal knowledge, the divisive with scientific. One model hasn't beaten out the other, so far, but it might in the future.
- Who's to say?
If You Can't Program It It Isn't Real
How Do You Make A Computer Not Want To Be A Computer?
The Cultural Foundation At The Tel Aviv Shopping Center
My Wife Who Throws Me Out
The Technology Of Good
Einstein & Intellectual Physics
You Have To Have A Story
How To Read Plato's Republic
Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation (text)
***Marriage, Philosophers, Politicians
****The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus
Harvard May 2012