Technology, Bureaucracy and Corruption

WireIt’s been an accepted opinion that technology reduces corruption. Examples abound. India is a popular example, and is mentioned in books (such as Performance Accountability and Combating Corruption) and articles on the Internet. And, at least in the ways that people are used to, corruption is mitigated. Reduced? Maybe.

It moves, or at least the potential for it does. And that is largely a good thing, where fewer people have the opportunity to profit from the bureaucratic systems put in place to manage things – be it land, licenses and permits, or registrations. With less human hands touching these things in the process, there is less injection of ‘human error’ – conscious or otherwise. And that, too, is a good thing since such human error slows things down to the point where the system is bypassed or ignored.

When the system is bypassed or ignored, the bureaucrats will say that it’s corruption and create Law that makes it illegal to – or they might actually start enforcing Law that already exists. They do this rather than fix the system as appropriate, which creates resentment in the populace. This simmers. Boils. And now and then, given the right circumstances, it erupts – and when it does, violent or not, those that boil over almost never have a plan for overhauling the systems if they are successful. The cycle continues.

Every sociopolitical space on the planet has these problems – it’s a matter of degree, and it’s a matter of Will to remedy these problems. In implementations of democracy around the world, this Will is rare to see used on things that are unpopular. Politicians like to get re-elected.

At some point, people might figure that out. At some point, people might identify this flaw on a collective level and do something about it – because that is the root of the problem.

The Will to fix things versus the Will to be re-elected.

 

Stay Up To Date.

technology is good for youHello. We’re the people selling the stuff that makes you stand in lines to get the latest one.

Our technology is good for you. Don’t think about the time you spend getting it to work, or getting it if you can. Don’t think about how many hours of work it will take for you to afford the new thing that is pretty much like the old thing with some humble improvements. Those humble improvements are going to make you more efficient and more happy.

Don’t worry about all your old stuff going to landfills. Why should you worry about the water table? We’ll make an app for that.

Use technology. It’s good for you. It will make your life so much better. It’s not that it will make you more attractive; it’s that if you don’t have it you won’t fit in. Stay up to date.

We care about you. We’ll gather your information and tell you things about yourself you might want to know – but we definitely want so that we can sell you more stuff. We’ll even map your house for you and sell it to people. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your house.

We’ll even sell your fear and outrage.

Technology is good for you.

Drink deep. We know what we’re doing – and our investors truly care about your money, which is why we make things that last just long enough to get you to a newer version.

You’re saving the world.

Ours.

Not yours.

Perspective

spaceWe used to look up.

I don’t know exactly who I mean by ‘we’. Maybe it was my generation, when we had seen man actually make it to the moon. Maybe it was people of my mindset.  I’d like to think it was my generation, with parents who had watched the original series of ‘Star Trek’ – and our generation who saw the original ‘Star Wars’. Or,  ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, or even, ‘E.T.’.

We used to look up. We used to stare at the stars, some of us, while laying in the grass.

I’ve spent most of the day watching this live stream, in the background, as I read and did other things. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. And we take it for granted, we sit there staring at phones, communicating about little of worth.

The things of worth we do talk about are about how we can’t keep things from flooding, or people from doing dumb things, or arguing over which idiot is better than which – we who could put a man on the moon, who could build an international space station, who could go peeking at other planets like a nosy neighbor.

We have the capacity to know where we are on our own planet with accuracy that would make ancient mariners ecstatic, and we have that on devices that Tesla told us we would eventually have. It wasn’t so long ago that these things didn’t exist. We dreamed big.

Then the Internet happened – a complex system of communication, too complex for our communication as we began to talk to people around the world. Kittens and pornography propagated it across the world.

Some were so intent on selling their products, services and thoughts that they got really good at marketing. In fact, they got so good at marketing that their marketing became better than their products, services and thoughts.

Somewhere along the way, I think we stopped looking up with a sense of awe. We stopped seeing what our combined efforts could do if we chose to work together.

We should look up.

Arts And Technology

Sisyphean TechnologyI found myself at my alma mater, discussing with the present Dean the divorce between Sciences and Literature a few weeks ago. It’s part of the concrete issue that I faced as a young man – in Trinidad and Tobago, then, probably around 1986, we were put into focused classes for Ordinary Level examinations.

There were paths for Modern Studies, Technical for the more hands on, and two Science classes. I made it into one of the two Science classes where we were driven down the science path – which most of us wanted. We were also required a language, which was Spanish. I was very happy with this at the time, only of the Computer Science aspect.

I was convinced Computer Science was my future, and to a large extent this was a self-fulfilling prophecy – as most prophecies seem to be.

In retrospect, as I spoke to the Dean of the school, a man younger than me, I looked back on how I wish I had the option to continue studying English Literature. I lost that when I got into the Science silo.

For 3 years prior, at the beginning of every summer vacation, I read all the books required for the next year. A voracious reader, I had read everything in the house already – all my father’s novels. Louis L’amour, James Clavell, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Zane Grey and Clive Cussler come immediately to mind. We also had an Encyclopedia from the early 1980s that I had read from end to end.

As I look back, I had two main passions but at the time I only understood the passion for one: Computer Science. The second, which I didn’t understand as a subject, was literature in it’s many forms – except plays. I thought reading plays was silly, and to a large extent I still do – you lose the forest for the trees, in my mind, and to write a forest one does not study trees but the forest. An opinion.

Now, what would have happened if I had been able to trade Spanish or Geography for English Literature? We could speculate a lifetime. I could say that the system failed me, but it’s not the system’s job to create individuals. In fact, when it comes to Education, what the system’s job is probably one of the most debated topics on the planet.

I can’t fix the Education system. That’s not the intent here. Nothing works for everyone, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to – but we set humanity’s most horrendous weapon to task, bureaucracy, and it grinds at young minds enough so that Pink Floyd wrote, “Another Brick In The Wall” as I began my very journey through the grind, beneath that wheel.

This isn’t about Education, though. This is about Learning, and the need to be balanced to at least be competent to some degree in sciences and art.

Just because you like being an individual who writes poetry doesn’t mean you won’t gain from understanding how a tree lives. Just because you like to know how things work doesn’t mean that you have to be spartan in your reading.

It was later on in life where I was rescued and given challenging things to read that tested my mind, poked and prodded it and teased out the importance of other things. It was an openness to knowledge that allowed me to do that, and while I was in a secondary school silo I did not feel that I had the time for such… luxury… such freedom to allow my mind to explore.

Yet I worked for decades with people who were generally horrid to communicate with, who weren’t aware of some of the lessons available in the Arts – about why society maybe should do some things and maybe shouldn’t do others. Ethics, and the roles as builders technologists play on the world stage. Philosophy. Being human. And in doing so, we forget what our role is, shrugging off the responsibility and putting it on others because we like our paychecks.

We should be better than that.

Influence: Richard Feynman

Everyone has influences, and I’ve decided to write about a few of mine. Outside of Physics circles, few people seem to know about Richard Feynman – which is a shame. The majority of Feynman’s written works are not hard for people without a scientific background to read, and they all entail a philosophy well summed up here:

feynman-1981-2

Without a doubt, his writings have influenced me. In some places they resonated because they made sense to me on an intuitive level and allowed me to grow beyond that. In other places, such as Ethics, it opened me up to new possibilities in looking at situations though I didn’t necessarily agree with him but have no space to argue with.

As an example, his work on the Manhattan Project was something that he thought about with this logic: He and others were scientists working on a project, and the greater society was responsible for how that work was used (A summary from ‘The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist‘). This is a straightforward way of looking at things that can assist in dealing with paralysis when trying to move forward, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily correct. Ultimately, in this example, he was right – particularly since there was a race at the time to have atomic weapons and someone else would eventually have them and use them.

Yet his way of looking at the world beyond the matters of people was less problematic and more supportive to my own life in that there is beauty in science, particularly since I have always existed within technology and art. Some of the greatest works of art around us are explained by science – the simple flower as an example:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. … There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
— Richard Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)

Quite an interesting man – a curious man – was Mr. Feynman, unabashedly so, and one of the great communicators in Science. These days there are greats such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to keep an eye on – but I do not know the body of his work well, and he is not done yet – he’s certainly not as dead as Feynman.

Some more quotes that I think are of worth from Feynman:

Well, we’re getting a little philosophical and serious, ok? Let’s go back to what we’re doing. One day we look at a map and this capital is K-Y-Z-Y-L and we decided it would be fun to go there because it’s so obscure and peculiar. It’s a game. It’s not serious. It doesn’t involve some deep philosophical point of view about authority or anything. It’s just the fun of having an adventure to try to go to a land that we’d never heard of, that we knew was an independent country once, no longer an independent country, find out what it’s like. And discover as we went along that nobody went there for a long time and it’s isolated made it more interesting. But, you know, many explorers liked to go to places that are unusual. And, it’s only for the fun of it. I don’t go for this philosophical interpretation of “our deeper understanding of what we’re doing.” We haven’t any deep understanding of what we’re doing. If we tried to understand what we’re doing, we’d go nutty.
— Richard Feynman, p. 236, from interview two weeks before his death in “The Quest for Tannu Tuva” (1989)

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. There are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask “Why are we here?” I might think about it a little bit, and if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. Possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
— Richard Feynman, p. 239, from interview in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (1981)

On Physical Writing

WritingWe live in an age where the pitter-patter of little keyboards has made way for the silent agony of typing on touchscreens, little QWERTYish keyboards on small surfaces that leave one looking like a monkey trying to solve a puzzle.

Truth be told, I don’t get release from tapping away at a keyboard. There’s no physicality to it. I carry a Moleskine reporter notebook with me almost everywhere I go, and for a years I went without – going instead with the ‘smartphones’, pads, etc – things that are supposed to ‘boost productivity’ and ‘blah blah blah marketingspeak marketingspeak!’ in ‘new and improved’ ways.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m becoming a dinosaur. Maybe I appreciate the relative privacy of my notebook – where it’s not encrypted and yet more private than using a smartphone, where the only people I need to worry about prying into my written thoughts being the ones physically close to me.

What I do know is, after getting back to writing in my Moleskines after these years, is that a good pen and a good Moleskine is like sex for me – the feel of the pen as it presses on the pages, cushioned as you break in a notebook, is simply a pleasure – the ink flowing properly, drying quickly, and flipping pages to write more. It’s sex.

And keyboards are like masturbation. Sure, you get some release, but it’s lacking that something.

That physicality.

That… sex.

The Search for Meaning.

Playmobile pottyI’m not sure we really matter.

No, this is not some existential issue I’m having. There have been enough of those, all without epiphanies. No, I’m writing about our species.

If, by some chance, I were to encounter a life form from another planet – or even a life form from this planet – I’m hard pressed to think of anything we do, as a whole, that is worth mentioning in a meeting where first impressions matter. Sure, we have technology, science, spirituality… the list goes on, but that’s all self-referential. If we actually look at what we do from outside of our species, it would make a very thin blog post. A colony of bees has a use. A planet of humans – we change everything to our own benefit even while changing things against our benefit. It’s wonky.

What is our purpose? Ask anyone and you’ll get a different answer. We’re convinced that our species is immortal when generations of us live and die under the light of dead stars. In a way we are immortal, somehow managing procreate faster than we die to the point where we’ve pretty much run out of space on a planet because of our own constructs. Governments pay farmers not to grow food in some countries while others starve. We have weapons in our arsenals that no one on the planet can run away from unless they have a ticket to get into space, and we haven’t quite figured out where we would want to go other than, ‘not here’.

It’s easy to imagine how our species got scattered around the planet. There was a lot of ‘not here’ involved. In fact, every country I have been to – those socioeconomic geopolitical divides cartographers note – has a fair number of people who want to go somewhere else simply because it’s ‘not here’. As a species, maybe that means we’re nomadic.

As individuals, we are defined and usually define ourselves by our role and status in society, but we would never admit to being drones serving queens in a hive. Or would we? And should we? I think so. We haven’t figured out a system that isn’t like indentureship – people work for a company, pay other companies, but really we work in a system and pay the system to live in the system simply because we were… born in the system. That’s pretty unimaginative.

We all agree to some extent on what life is. Our shared illusion, perhaps. We all know that death is a certainty and joke that taxes are too, when death is not of our creation and taxes are. We could, if we wanted, abolish taxes – but instead we fight to abolish death. And we’re getting better at that since in that way, the drones can pay more taxes before their deaths. That’s peculiar.

Let’s say that we abolish death. Does that mean we get to play life longer? How is that a benefit? I’m hard pressed to explain how that is a benefit.

Technology, science? Pretty self-referential so far. A bunch of primates staring at small screens while bumping into each other at varying speeds hardly seems like progress, particularly when meaningful conversation is lost amid the noise. It’s brownian motion. We’re as entertaining as a cup of tea.

Religion? Self-referential as well, and while Pascal’s Wager is worth exploring, people get indoctrinated into religion before they are allowed to make big decisions in society. It’s a child marriage of sorts. But beyond that, religion doesn’t say too much about what our species is supposed to do, just about how people should behave. Again, self-referential. Imagine the leaps the space programs of the world would have if religions dictated that prayers had to be made in space to be effective.

The very idea that we don’t matter eats at us. It devours us because we desperately, from within our place as cogs of society and the weight that comes with, want to think that all of this means something. That despite our species own demonstrated self-destruction while proliferating at a greater rate, that despite what we feel during those dark parts of our lives that we hide from, we matter.

Is not mattering such a problem?

So, here’s the fun part. If we don’t matter, it doesn’t matter if we think we do. We have a blank slate if we don’t matter, where we can define as a species who we really are… or we have the fingerpainted hieroglyphics of our past to define ourselves by.

Are we really defined by what we have done instead of what we could do? That’s how they measure the value of person in HR and in society – or more would be done for children in society.

Speaking for myself, I like the idea of defining ourselves by what we could do. 

But then, I don’t matter.