December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

“All attempts to adapt our ethical code to our situation in the technological age have failed” – Max Born, 1968. In the 21st century, is Max right? ...

Technology is developing at an exponential rate. Moore’s Law applied to the modern world tells us that computing capacity doubles approximately every two years, and there’s little doubt that these innovations are rapidly changing our behaviour. In 1968 physicist Max Born rued that “all attempts to adapt our ethical code to our situation in the technological age have failed,” but is he right?

A panel discussion at the science festival FutureFest held in Shoreditch Town Hall examined how new technological advances might be changing our more human values. Do values change slowly all the time, or are they more or less constant? Is it prudent to consciously adapt values to keep pace with the morphing technological landscape?

Rohan Gunatillake (pictured) is an award winning blogger, author of the world’s first urban meditation app Buddify and sits on the board of the British Council. He feels there is a need to re-examine values: “The problem is that the conversation lags the technology, the technology keeps on going,” he said. “One of the reasons people get upset with the web is because they apply old etiquette rules to new forms of communication. For example, some people new to Twitter assume that they have to see everything, because they’re used to letters and telephones where you feel obliged to answer, or email where you eventually get to everything. With this new form you literally can’t do that.”

Another panellist at the FutureFest discussion was Nick Harkaway, author of The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World. He felt that values don’t change with every new development but have deeper foundations. “When you dig down you find that values are very constant. For instance, when asked, almost everyone will say they believe in the value of education,” he said. While Nick doesn’t think values change much over time, he used DNA databases in the hands of policemen as an example of how the consequences of new technology often cause anxiety. “You have anxiety about the future as there’s no reason to have anxiety about the past. The future is the only forum in which things are malleable,” but concludes that the anxiety “is normal, and we just need to relax about it.”

Distinguishing between real challenges to our values posed by new technology and the anxiety over potential challenges was a regular theme in the discussion. Futureal is an agency that helps companies prepare for an uncertain future and its founder, Tamar Kasriel, feels there’s a difference between genuine future problems and perceived future problems: “It’s worth remembering that the sense that we’re living in an uncertain and anxiety-inducing world is not new,” she said. “When the bicycle was first invented there was a genuine fear that the human body wasn’t designed to go at those speeds, and if you went on a bicycle you were in danger of permanent physical disfigurement, which was called ‘Bicycle Face’. Once you had it there was no going back.”

But this doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern: “We are going through a phase of unprecedented disruption,” Tamar suggested. “My personal view is that to some extent the speed of disruption has become exponential, and things are influencing each other at a more rapid rate.” One consequence of these disruptions is behaviour change. Tamar believes that no technology is taken on unless there is a basic human need for it, and gave the example of the mobile phone as being so successful because it taps into the basic human need to communicate. Once the new technology is embedded, however, Tamar suggests it can then start changing our habits: “Our expectations of something even as simple as setting up a meeting, change,” she said. “Twenty years ago you would decided a time and a place, now there might be an agreement to meet on Friday, then the next day you agree Friday afternoon then, finally, a specific time and place.”

With mobile internet connection embedded in the lifestyle of the majority of the population, are our habits changing further and how might that affect values? Gunatillake thinks a lot of the habits we’ve developed from new technology match the values of the programmers who developed them, and points out that successful new technologies are usually created by recent graduates in California’s Silicon Valley. “Sex, status and money is what makes a 23-year-old tick and these are the holy trinity of our digital universe,” he said, “but I don’t think that trinity is fixed.” His suggestion is that as the average age of developers increases, internet software will start to fit into a more mature set of values: “Relationships, mental experiences and inner well-being are things that only become important as you get a bit older and we’re seeing the web mature. This is what makes me think the current centre of gravity on the web isn’t necessarily fixed.”

A set of values that Gunatillake is close to is Buddhism. His Buddify app for mobile phones is designed to help people meditate and improve their inner well-being in urban environments. He’s also a practitioner of Buddhism and has noticed how the religion’s values change depending on cultural context: “Zen is radically different to Tibetan practice, which is radically different to the traditions in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and they argue with each other constantly,” he said. “There’s a belief in some quarters that the understanding of human potential was perfected 2,600 years ago by the guy who was known as the Buddha when there was an absolute realisation. What is clear is that as the tradition has evolved it’s expanded the sense of what it is to be a practitioner. Originally it was about individual liberation; and then you see a massive move and it becomes about the support of other people. What is seen as the ‘value universe’ evolves and evolves.

“In a world where I have to deal with questions about whether I should keep the stem cells of my new born child, it’s hard to apply Buddhist teaching; Buddha never had that question.”

Although we can look to spiritual traditions as an example of values changing over time, Gunatillake feels that the contemporary conversation about values should be rooted in present day experiences: “Information overload is a buzz phrase because it’s a felt experience,” he said. “Do we have the inner skillsets and capacities to deal with this rate of change?

“The discussion doesn’t have to take up too much time, but the thing is to recognise that it’s an important pursuit.”