The Social Technological Age

One of my most recent reads is Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (yes, the very one of the Emotional Intelligence fame). I found the book interesting although in some sections it reads like some sci-fi plotline. However, much of the book is based on continued research into how our brains are wired and how that wiring essentially influences our interactions with people around us – including strangers.

Turns out empathy is a pretty powerful factor in a person’s ability to create, nurture and maintain relationships. However this ability to essentially tune into someone’s else’s feelings and state of being is not equally developed in everyone hence leading to the various trials and tribulations that people go through. One of the most fundamental questions that I like to bring up on discussion of relationship is a hypothetical scenario: what if you have everything that you wanted? And I don’t mean that in a sense that you want a trillion bucks today and you get it but something that you can reasonably struggle for a reasonably be assured of getting it. What would be the purpose of your life then?

Empathic Civilization

Let me dwell some more on the notion of “having everything you want”: as individual persons we want good for ourselves as a matter of course however there is a point at which the individual good relies on the good of everyone around you – when you give, you also benefit because you have had the opportunity to be of use to someone else. Taken a bit further, “everyone around you” would include the entire ecology that is keeping you alive. This generosity can not be limited to only material or physical aspects of life; the psychological dimension of generosity is a far more interesting subject to ponder than the clear cut, obvious dictates of our physical generosity. How does an emotion as such love (complex, while simple as it is) gets expressed in a situation in which you are virtually secure and safe in and of yourself?

The increased knowledge and information about how our brain works is a direct consequence of our ability to collect and reason about vast amount of information thanks to advances in computing hardware and the corresponding software. If much of what has happened in the past is to be taken as a baseline from which to extrapolate what might happen down the road, then it becomes increasingly hard to dismiss the idea that we could reach  a point at which the working of our biological bits and pieces is no longer a great mystery. Besides enabling us to see what is going on inside our own bodies (or our favourite research proxies like white mice), advances in computing is also transforming the way we communicate with each other through the elevated prominence of social networks and more importantly the social component of our interaction is increasing becoming a key part of how we use our computing equipment and conduct our lives.

I am far more intrigued by what the increased importance of social networks means to our future evolution. Already, the petabytes of data on social networking sites say more about our individual actions and choices overtime that it is possible to analyse this vast data repository for patterns that will give clues into how we want our lives to be customised. That has always been the story that tech visionaries over the decades have been talking about but it is in this day and age that the possibility of making our computing experience more in touch with a realistic approximation of our social interactions. Everything in our daily lives involves dealing with other people and when technological advances take this into account then lives can be wonderfully transformed. Whether we are ready for this transformation or not is perhaps the question that will only be answered by future historians.

Sociologist and anthropologist would perhaps take the time to extrapolate and attempt to explain the potential impact of technology on society and our very definition of ourselves. I can’t help feel like the financial crisis was brought about by ease of access to technology that enables us to dream up the most complicated derivatives that few, if at all, ever understood. As if it was not enough that you define a financial product solely based on its formulaic relationship with the real world, you then have the ability to sell those same products all over the world such that the very false nature of these derivatives exposed far too many people to the risk involved. This is not an attempt to lay blame at the feet of technological progress but instead more an exploration of what such incidents say about our ability to effectively leverage the true benefits of technological progress.

The precepts on which current modern life was build may not smoothly transfer onto a more technology-centric society; for example the rule of law is imperative to the functioning of society however the very idea of owning a property (more specifically digital properties) is different from that which applies to owning real world artefacts like land, a building or even a pen. The concept of ownership and valuing the property so owned inevitably affects the very definition of what constitute theft and what would be a fair compensation for being deprived of what is rightly yours. When applied to digital properties, does copying a file truly qualify as stealing? In the normal sense of stealing a pen i.e. the owner of the pen does not have access to the pen anymore?

Taking someone’s property (digital or a non-digital) remains ethically wrong and as per the dictates of any civilized society; however, if the theft in question is digital – more along the lines of copying than depriving the original owner of ownership of the property in question, then it becomes hard to judge what is an acceptable compensation. There is the question of policing such crimes; either the laws and by extension the rule of law need to evolve to accommodate a more digital life or technology need to bent over backward to accommodate (more fully) existing assumptions about fundamental aspects of life like owning property.

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