By Gareth Dicker
The watchmaker must never be forgotten. Through thoughts, the watch has come into existence. The thoughts have flowed, as it were, into the watch, into the thing. ––Rudolf Steiner, “Practical Training in Thought” (Karlsruhe, 18 January 1909), in GA 108.
Our ideas and imaginations pour into our physical creations, whether these be technical, artistic, social, practical, or anything else. The situation is no different in the case of digital technology. To build a watch, the watchmaker begins with an idea such as “personal timekeeping,” imagines how it may be done with “a regularly ticking dial,” and then gets to work designing and manufacturing the watch.
The only part of this process that we get to know about through our senses is the final product, the physical watch. Our senses have access only to creative endpoints. If I look at a blossom, I do not see the whole process that built it up; I can understand the fuller reality of a plant only by reflecting upon its growth in time. Though my reflection is invisible, my conceptions are just as real and important as my perceptions.
We perceive only tiny cross sections in space-time of realities that extend far beyond these snapshot experiences. It is only through reflection that we can come to know a whole plant. We do this through the ideas that bridge the many individual perceptions we have of plants.
The same is true of a watch. Because its ideas are limited to the mechanical, a watch is much easier to understand than a plant. But can we apply this same mode of thinking to something as complex as the entire digital world––that part of our total reality which is communicated by digitally produced images and sounds?
Unlike the case of watches, we cannot take apart the digital world, since its hardware is distributed across every continent, beneath the oceans, above the atmosphere, and vibrating in the earth’s electromagnetic field. Unlike a single watch, the digital world has been gradually built up by the ideas and work of millions of human beings over hundreds of years.
Each of its sub-inventions stands on the shoulders of preceding inventions: from the telegraph to telephone to fiber optic cable. From phonograph to record player to hard drive. From radio to internet to WiFi. From computer to laptop to cell phone.
These technologies are distributed both spatially and conceptually in terms of hardware and software. The digital world has no location. No single sensory experience of a screen captures the whole of it but is merely a portal to a vast web of logically responsive binary switches.
While no one person can understand all its details, there are actually only a few key technical concepts required in order to build digital technologies, such as binary logic, frequency manipulation and transmission, closed loop control, recursion, and so on. Those are its functional ideas (like the ideas of gear ratios and spring-winding would be to a watchmaker).
What are its motivating ideas? The watchmaker wanted personal timekeeping for everyone. What do we––collectively––want the digital world to do for us?
Of course, there is no simple answer. There are close to eight billion people alive today. Each may imagine some different motive. One might argue it’s quite easy to name what motivates digital progress in general. All the technology companies say it succinctly: connect the world, bring people closer together, share information and experiences, and so on. This is true enough, at some level, but really there’s so much more to the story.
We know that capital-economic, political, military, and other influences are probably the main driving forces at work in the unwavering development of digital technology. These factors often sweep cautionary measures aside, as is the case at the moment in the field of so-called “machine learning.”
There are currently millions of software engineers working to move the digital world, year by year, to its next phase of development. I can say from personal experience that most of them are not thinking much about the big picture. Some, however, have very conscious ideals and motives. The moral quality of these motives is what we have to consider. What ideas are they working out of? What is their conception of reality, their worldview?
We need to consider seriously the ideas that leading world personalities have about the world and the pictures they hold for humanity’s future. What kind of watches are the watchmakers hoping to make?
To be clear, I am not condemning technological development in general. I am grateful for the incredible possibilities the digital world offers and see its potential for increasing human creativity, connectivity, and outer freedom.
But, that said, what are we to make of transhumanist motives? If we read or listen to Yuval Noah Harari, we can’t ignore the fact that each idea he presents to the world is affecting its development in significant ways. The same goes for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Ray Kurzwiel, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many other individuals endowed with superhuman willpower and intellectual relentlessness.
There are also technologists, such as Tristan Harris from Meta and Geoff Hinton from Google, who have moved in the last few years into whistleblowing roles, and now are asking questions of how technology is reacting upon our humanity.
The key is not to forget that humanity, collectively, is the one imagining this digital world into being. It is pouring out of us and reacts back upon us now as an extension of ourselves. It is not going away, though its development can be made safer. In some ways, it is already inseparable from our human bodies, and these experiences will intensify.
How can this extension of ourselves, the digital world, help us to become not less but more human––more compassionate, more socially creative, more connected with the earth and the cosmos around us?
I have no answers for now, only questions. I do sense the need to engage in more frequent and serious dialogue with those who are consciously holding technological motivating ideas as they continue to precipitate them into material realities. Wherever possible, we do need to engage directly with financial, political, and technological leaders, to help them see clearly the effects of their ideas as they become manifest in material form (together we can align technology with humanity’s best interests, Center for Humane Technology). But we can speak with today’s watchmakers effectively only if we understand their motives clearly. As with any historical moment where civil society has had to gather around vital issues, let’s get our thoughts together and see what is needed.
The clock is ticking!
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Gareth Dicker, a graduate of CfA’s Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program (WHiSTEP), teaches physics and math at the Emerson Waldorf High School in North Carolina. Before this, for about seven years, he researched robotics, working primarily on small humanitarian drone technologies at McGill University. He is also a violinist, multi-instrumentalist, and facilitator of musical open mic and improv events. In his spare time, he enjoys playing capoeira, making music, reading esoteric texts, and climbing trees. He is helping to organize and will be a presenter at the forthcoming conference this spring on technology, sponsored by the Youth Section at the Goetheanum. Picture generated by Bing.