The Interdependence of Technology and Culture

Are computers making us smarter or dumbing us down?  However we feel about it, technology will progress and we need to decide for ourselves how we will interact with it. Yet before we can do that, we need to understand how technology is created and how it impacts our lives. We need to understand how human decisions are impacted or what happens when they are replaced by computerized ones. Only then we can make the right choices.

IMG_2598Development of technology depends on uncovering an aspect of nature, from how atoms form molecules, via how bacteria live in symbiosis with the human body, to how humans interact in a social network. It is interesting that technology does not grow and spread equally around the world, but there are hotspots and dead spots. It is both opportunity and culture that shape technological progress.

In The Death and Life of Great American CitiesJane Jacobs argues that the one core aspect of culture that drives progress is diversity of people and ideas. It fosters a creative environment that bubbles with innovation. Let’s not forget that this applies to any social grouping including businesses. The creative work of uncovering technological principles requires an environment of tolerance, prosperity, and opportunities for a diversity of ideas to mix. So quite apparently culture has an influence on technology. Ever since a stone axe has been used to shape the first wooden wheel, new technology is a combination of previous technologies, much like biological organisms are combinations of genes. My most used example is the one of the Apple Appstore ecosystem, setting free the immense creativity pool of its worldwide developer network. It is those applications and content that put Apple in front of Microsoft. Not the Mac or iPhone. As technology progresses, markets of humans using technology increasingly resemble biological ecosystems, with its building blocks being mixed and matched in new and unpredictable ways.

As the number of basic technologies expands the number of permutations and recombinations increases exponentially.  That’s why technological advancement is always accelerating. New technology enables us to uncover even more phenomena and that allows us to build even more technology.

When people say that they are afraid of technology what they are really saying is that they are afraid of people using to technology in the wrong way. As a general guideline we should only do things we fully understand and clearly there is always the military and political aspect to consider. Technology is equally suited for surveillance as it is for control. Too often Technology has been and is being used to kill more people more efficiently. War and peace are both dependent on technology.

And here comes the surprising loopback: Technology more than anything else changes the culture of the social group using it.

Morality and compassion are principle signs of maturity.

So why are people opposed to technology if they apply common sense? A two year old is not afraid of a smartphone, he/she is rather magically drawn towards it and learns within the shortest time how to interact with it. Einstein suggested that common sense is no more than all prejudice collected by the age of 18. Is it just the fear of change or the unknown consequences? I propose that politicians are only too happy to use this fear to enable more government control over technology. Orthodox media just love fear-mongering and especially towards its archenemy, the Internet.

Does that cause us to be prejudiced one way or the other about technology as we mature? Human maturity is mostly about realizing ones own weaknesses and turning them into strengths. Fear protects us but can also stifle. While the ability to forgo immediate pleasures for postponed gains is a sign of maturity there is little benefit by turning such behavior into rigid rules. A lot of it has to do with experience and the related emotional adjustment of ones decisions, also known as the value of failure. If you build airplanes some of them will crash! Using analogies in a future projection will enable a mature person to make large adjustments from small failures. A child that is not overprotected learns through its own experience that the height of a fall is proportional to the pain and that is for most sufficient to not test the limits of that projection. If not it is called natural selection.

Mature people understand intuitively that Collaboration is more productive than antagonistic behavior. Also competitiveness can be a great driver up to a point. So maturity is not just about increasing positive and reducing negative behaviors but about finding a balance while following our drivers. Perseverance, patience, endurance, and tolerance are all going to waste without compassion which is part of the one key human aspect: MORALITY. So what we are really worried about is a lack of morality and compassion that would stop others to use technology against us. But we do not have to just invoke images of Orwell’s 1984 but simply have to look how many businesses are run today and how employees are treated there.

Many would agree that a society has a higher morality if it has more laws and rules to follow. I propose that the opposite is the case. If people would be moral, there is no need for rules and laws. If people know what they are doing there is no need to protect them from their own folly with regulation such as speed limits. And let’s not forget that it is the law that makes the criminal and that the rule makes the transgressor. Many believe that rules and regulations save time and money as they prohibit failures. If that would be true the negative side effect would be a total lack of learning within that organization as there would be no failures and no growth of experience.

Prohibition as the ultimate regulation for both alcohol and drugs led to an empty space in which only criminals – the Mafia then and drug cartels now – define how drugs are being produced and consumed. I have been suggesting to deregulate drugs for two decades and I am no longer alone. The more you regulate, the more you give up control, because the action will take place outside the space you think you are controlling. If you put in place too strict process management then collaboration will bypass it with email and office tools.

In society and in business, rules and the necessary enforcement use up more resources and time than they actually save. An effect called ‘rule beating‘ is well known to system thinkers. Any defined rule will cause people to try and bypass it. The most efficient way to perform any kind of work is if the people involved know what they’re doing and rules are kept to the absolute minimum necessary. ‚Knowing what to do’ is not equal to abstract knowledge that can be encoded in rules. ‘Knowing what to do’ requires a personal experience transposed by ‘pattern-matching’ to the current context.

Giving people freedom is not anarchy! It drives diversity and learning.

While our understanding of human intelligence is limited, recent years have brought the realization that human decision making – the essence of free will – is controlled by our emotional center and is a bio-chemical function and not controlled by rational thinking. That has led some to say that there is no free will in humans. Brain scans show activity for a movement half a second before the human says that he has taken the decision. But how would we really know? Some use that discovery to argue that human decision-making is flawed. Nothing could be more wrong. The human mind has evolved to deal with decision-making under uncertainty. Boolean Logic requires a context of certainty that does not exist in reality.

Free will is also related to the concept of spontaneity, which is to the surprise of many a key concept of physics, especially quantum physics. Just like in quantum physics, spontaneity does not happen into an empty context, but it is that context that enables and is probably connected to the spontaneous action. Is it then still truly spontaneous or free will? A purely philosophical discussion depending on what free will is supposed to mean.

We do know that the human brain has a very plastic biology of layers upon layers. The limbic system is the emotional control mechanism for memory and decision-making and produces emotions such as anger, fear and our core drives. The cortex however stores a virtual representation of the real world as patterns. It uses it to continuously predict the future, based on the past and present. Each pattern recognised can have higher orders of patterns to the depth of 6 layers of the cerebral cortex.

The human brain is thus a bio-chemical pattern-matching device with a huge number of pre-encoded recognition clusters that allow us to sense our surroundings and deduce feelings and recognitions about them. As the world is simply not predictable in the detail and we are unable to know and measure accurately enough, we always decide under uncertainty and therefore an emotionally driven pattern matching concept works the best. Pattern matching is easy to train and easy to cluster into hierarchies. Much better than complex semantic networks that suffer from unresolvable interpretation issues. It is always the interpreter that assigns meaning and not the message creator. One can agree on common ontologies and taxonomies, but it will still be impossible to build logic networks that will be showing or explaining free will decision-making. And that understanding brings us back to maturity and morality! Feeling (through biochemistry) within us the same emotions as others given similar patterns is what allows us to be compassionate and thus moral. Logic can never be moral.

Company culture will change with technology!

One can use technology to do both — empower or restrict. Both will have a strong influence on a business and it will over time change the company culture, for better or for worse. So be careful what you wish for.

It is humans and their free will driven by the emotional context that makes a business moral and mature. A balanced score card or a well-defined process doesn’t. Company culture can’t be described in a few slogans either. There is no way that any kind of business or process maturity can be found in silly and far-fetched templates or boilerplates, models or frameworks, business or otherwise. Why should a business be more mature if it shapes its activity into predefined processes? It may be more compliant if it describes everything in rules but not more moral. Lacking diversity, it will certainly be much less innovative and thus competitive. And yes, one can therefore use the analogy of human maturity to business maturity. Mostly because it is the maturity of humans that make up the business that defines the maturity of the business. Not achieving some abstract level state of perfectly defined process logic. What utter nonsense!

Yes, technology will cause new challenges and further problems. There will be failures. Human creativity will use once again technology to solve those, not a methodology or legislation that restricts and demands safety and conformity. There is no need to fear technology as long as enough humans have the freedom to choose in a democratic environment. Technology that empowers will free the employees minds and unlock creativity and innovation. The same free minds will mostly use their freedom to do the moral thing.

No matter what your opinion is on the subject, the evolution of technology is tightly linked to our own. The use of technology is also tightly linked to the future of your business! Competitive advantage is not achieved through control so get hold of that fear and use technology to empower.

I am the founder and Chief Technology Officer of Papyrus Software, a medium size software company offering solutions in communications and process management around the globe. I am also the owner and CEO of MJP Racing, a motorsports company focused on Rallycross or RX, a form of circuit racing on mixed surfaces that has been around for 40 years. I hold 8 national and international championship titles in RX. My team participates in the World Championship along Petter Solberg, Sebastian Loeb and Ken Block.

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Posted in Economy, Evolution, Machine Learning

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Max J. Pucher
© 2007-19

by Max J. Pucher. All rights reserved.

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