Pursuing Sanity in a Digital Tsunami: Be Calm; Be Kind

Remarks of Tom Mahon at the 12th Rhodes Forum, September 27, 2014

In all the technical documents I have read and written over the years in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley I’ve never encountered words like kindness, empathy or virtue anywhere.

On one hand, you don’t expect words like those in tech docs. On the other hand, why not? What are tools for if not to promote personal and communal well-being?

When ‘high-tech’ meant a computer at work, a television at home, and a radio in the car, it probably didn’t matter much.

But given that we are now immersed in an all-digital ecosystem, required to double the pace of our lives every two years to keep up with our tools, the absence of discussions of virtue and values is remarkable.

So how would we even begin to integrate humane values into tech specs?

Start here: all technology is based on the principle of leverage, achieving maximum outputs while minimizing inputs. To be heard 100 yards away in 1900, you had to cup your hands and shout loud.  With the development of vacuum state, then solid state, amplifiers since then, we can now whisper into a mobile phone and be heard 10,000 miles away. That’s leverage!

Hold that thought….

All the world’s ethical systems are based on two principles: be composed within your self, and manifest that in acts of kindness to all others. Be calm; be kind. In Christianity, it’s expressed: Peace be with you; love one another.

Now, hold that thought for a moment, too…

Suppose we change our mode of thinking when we design and use tools. Imagine being in a composed frame of mind before picking up a tool, and then leveraging that composure to result in an act of kindness.

Be calm when you input your energy into a tool, and intend the result of that leveraging action to produce kind outcomes.

I know this sounds absurdly simple. I know from my own life experience that it is far easier said than done. But working to achieve such a practice – even occasionally - might be the start of hacking through our omnipresent, self-created Gordian Knot of complexity, disruptiveness and hyperactivity. (And left alone, that velocity will only increase in the years to come.)

Think of the possibilities if the energy we put into our tools reflects a composed frame of mind, and the intended outcomes are acts of kindness. This practice can’t be done all the time, or even much of the time at first.  But it can be done, even if only in incremental steps to start.

If we don’t reclaim a human handle on our tools, we will increasingly become the tools of our tools, until the tools decide they don’t need us any more. (And that is a real possibility.)

If engaging in this process interests you, but you fear backlash at work or school or home, consider discussing this with co-workers, fellow students or family members. You may be surprised how many others are suffering digital exhaustion silently. And the more people involved in a process like this, the more likely positive feedback loops will create even greater results.

Imagine if the user manual for all tools began with the instructions: be calm; be kind