I hope for a meaningful moment of resonance in your life today. The kind that comes from meeting a long-lost best friend and talking late into the night. I want to share that it’s okay to feel lost, feeling lost is the first step to finding a new path. And a reminder, that every beginning is another beginning’s end.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about this quality of connectedness, beauty and meaning that I look for, in my work, and in my personal life. In a sense, I’m looking for the-sacred, here not referring to religious dogma, but in finding the qualities of your life that move you.
Percolating in my mind, is a video by Ellie Hain where she refers to the self-awareness of one’s sacred as Exiting The Void. My own experiences of participating in my sacred, have been the deepest instances of wonder, hope, resilience and love in my life.
And speaking of new beginnings, some of you might know of my recent solo-trip to edinburgh-uk, capping the second year of my undergraduate course at UCL. That was some much needed time for introspection into my own sources of meaning, and a realization that a part of me felt lost.
Something about the extremely focused flow state of examinations has always disconnected me from the bigger picture. Ever since I was 12, I’ve put myself in a story as a participant working towards something larger than myself. Being part of a movement towards some grand vision for a better world, cheesy as it sounds, forms a core component of my sacred.
This sense of transcendence comes through a call in the world, which I must answer. These powerful words by Saffron Huang remind me of the importance of this call, as a technologist with the agency to encode my ideological preferences into the things I make.
We are an unprecedentedly self-augmenting species, with a fundamental drive to organize, imagine, construct and exercise our will in the world. And we can measure our technological success on the basis of how much they increase our humanity. What we need is a vision for that humanity, and to enact this vision. What do we, humans, want to become?
But until now, I’ve never thought to write the call down, and in moments of intensity, I forget myself. This letter to you, is a letter to myself, on the call I feel moved to answer today.
The social imaginary of contributions towards a better world has gently drifted over time. From the 1900s to the present day, Albert Einstein gave way to Steve Jobs, and the Nobel Prize gave way to the billion-dollar acquisition. But it is the view of Richard Hamming, that sticks with me the most:
In Hamming’s world, great achievements are gifts of knowledge to humanity.
Perhaps I interpret this more loosely than Hamming intended, but to me a gift of knowledge is not just research. It’s a lens through which someone sees possibilities that they just didn’t see before.
The challenge for me, is to think and feel and find the gifts I can offer. And those gifts are simultaneously the answer to my call. To trace my steps and find these gifts, I decided to start by looking in my own past through a piece I wrote titled: Technology’s purpose is vitality.
If the proximate purpose of technology is flourishing, the ultimate purpose of technology is vitality.
And it just has to be. If we just open our eyes to what is possible, technology can be a force for good, for optimism, for love, hope and joy. What gifts might show people that the broken promises made by technologists can be mended? That we are capable of looking beyond technology, and acknowledging the interdependent and infinite relations that constitute the world’s problems.
It took a lot of touching grass, and staring at a blank page for me to get to an answer that felt satisfactory. I expect these gifts and calls to be evolutionary with my own growth and trajectory in life, and thus a humble request to you, my dear reader, to be vocal in any suggestions or criticisms to what I’ve written down.
For clarity, I’ve separated my calls into three levels of abstraction. Let’s begin.
My first call relates to the individual. An inspiring story from the past is the one of J.C.R Licklider and the invention of interactive personal computing. Licklider’s fundamental belief, as stated in Man-Computer Symbiosis, was that technology can and should be used to enhance an individual’s agency. Part of my initial statement, “Technology’s proximal purpose is human flourishing”, very well matches Licklider’s own sentiment.
Today, the available design space for extending human flourishing has expanded past computing: biotechnology for example is a promising new field. But given my prior interests, and the unprecedented advancements in artificial intelligence over recent years, the call I feel at the level of the individual is to contribute to augmentation technologies that keep humans firmly in control of our own destiny.
In other words, unlike the researchers rolling out the red-carpet for super-intelligent AI, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be the super-intelligence.
Why go down without a fight?
For some specificity, consider brain-computer interfaces, peripheral neural interfaces, biosensors and bio-actuators. These are all research areas I’m already involved in, and endlessly fascinated by, which I believe (hopefully) puts me in a position to make meaningful contributions.
And you, Us:
One lesson from the history of technology is that the interplay between technology and society is a radically important part of determining the benefits (and costs!) to our collective good.
The internet which emerged alongside personal computing tells the story of how something that was once designed to be decentralized, open, transparent and interoperable can quickly become the exact opposite when exposed to larger societal systems.
A quote by the sociobiologist, EO Wilson, clarifies this point:
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.
Institutions and other societal systems are interdependent with us and the relations we hold with one another. We make the systems, and then the systems make us. But given the rapid change of pace in technology, I find it unlikely that previous methods of social organization will remain relevant for very much longer. The fundamental assumptions of religion, capitalism, communism and other mechanisms are being tested to their limits by our technology.
As a student, this is terrifying, like staring down the barrel of a gun and waiting for the trigger to go off. But hidden in the risk, is also opportunity to participate in the reimagining of our social systems from first-principles. Questions come to mind like:
- How might we imagine plurality encoded into the fabric of society?
- How might we encourage mutualism and belonging?
- How might we create more paratelic spaces within our society?
- How might we have systems which work towards human flourishing rather than perpetual GDP growth?
Within this call are tangible themes like decentralized and evolutionary organizations, cryptocurrencies, digital governance, peer-to-peer, pluralism and mutualism. My ongoing work with Happily Ever After, is an experiment on these ideas, starting with a very important social system- healthcare.
And it All:
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is still today, one of the most profound books I’ve had the opportunity to read. Robin reminds us of who we are, situated within the interdependent web of life that sustains us. We share this planet not just with other people, but all other forms of life, which call upon us (and me) to think: what are we responsible for?
Robin asks us to appreciate the gifts of sunlight, food, water and air, and to notice that the currency of a gift economy, at its root, is reciprocity.
If citizenship is a matter of shared beliefs, then I believe in the democracy of species. If citizenship means an oath of loyalty to a leader, then I choose the leader of the trees. If good citizens agree to uphold the laws of the nation, then I choose natural law, the law of reciprocity, of regeneration, of mutual flourishing.
This is a call, not for me to create or invent, but to breathe and notice that the transcendence I am seeking is seeking me. To realize my place in the broader, beautiful web of life that surrounds me everyday.
And then, to protect that web, and remember that as technologists it is on us to consider what we can give, rather that what we can take.
All powers have two sides, the power to create and the power to destroy. We must recognize them both, but invest our gifts on the side of creation.
Reader, if you are fortunate as I am, to have a bright sunny day today, remember to go outside and take a walk in peace. The world is looking after you with everything its got.
Special gratitude to Yegor Lisle, Zuzanna Kosobudzka, Aaron Chung-Jukko and Daniel Lim for a delightful dinner and thoughtful conversations which finally unblocked me to be able to articulate my thoughts in this article.
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