Technology, Wonder, & Us

We’re at the epicenter of the biggest ecosystem of information exchange in the history of humanity. So how do we ensure space for the experience of wonder? Good science and good technology need technical expertise—and also literacy in being authentically human.

Technology, Wonder, & Us
Illustrations by Derek Brahney

REVOLUTION 4.0

On waking, my anxiety to be assured that I am still alive is assuaged by checking my personal and professional emails. In the first two hours of a quiet Sunday morning, I also exchanged greetings with a friend in Jerusalem, bought some vitamins, followed the latest Brexit convolutions (my original home is Wales), checked on the weather forecast in three cities, and registered my weight. Doing that involved an iPhone, two computers, electronic scales and a fitness monitor, and five apps.

As a Jesuit, I know the value of the Examen. This regular “practice of the presence of God” involves forming a conscience based on objective truth; it helps to become mindful of the subtle presence of God in the endless flow of events of daily life. My own examen lets me know that I start most days not in the awareness of God but among a host of voices and images that clamor for my attention, and win it.

We can blame that clamor on technology—but “technology” is a weasel term, and it’s worth remembering that technological innovation predates Homo sapiens. Historians of technology have long pointed out that the wheel, the lever, the plough, all transformed civilizations. Shall we talk about disruptive technologies? They are nothing new. The Mongol invention of the metal stirrup disrupted warfare—and therefore political power and social order—by making it possible to ride long distances and fire arrows on horseback. We use the term “the Industrial Revolution,” but there have been many revolutions, each of which transformed people’s sense of themselves and their place in the world.

Our world will never be as it was before, a truth that ancient philosophers knew but is now impacting us daily.

There may be, however, something different going on in what Klaus Schwab calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, best known for convening an annual meeting of global thinkers and leaders in Davos, Switzerland.) What is different now is the pace of change—which is stating the obvious.

Daily living for people around the globe is now comprised of things inconceivable even ten years ago, all blurring boundaries across geographies and cultures and between work and play. When I arrived at Santa Clara University in 2016 to serve as director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, I talked about the need to “hit the ground strolling,” that is, allowing time and place for deep reflection in order to foster meaningful action, something essential to any endeavor calling itself “Jesuit.” But contemporary digital innovation does not allow for that, or hold it as a value. Innovation can easily become an unadorned, self-justified end in itself. Ideas, values, and ideals come from somewhere and somebody. And all actions, even such nervous tics as checking one’s email every few minutes, express hopes, convictions, and desires that are all the more potent when they are not surfaced to the level of awareness.

What is sometimes called digital culture—that most important actor on the world stage of the 21st century—was born from a combination of particular history and place: the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s, with its optimism about a radically alternative world. The DNA of today’s tech industry also includes the 18th-century notion of progress, which held that economic development, science, and technology are the keys to improving the human condition. This inheritance is visible in business models that emphasize disruption and in the “can do” problem-solving mentality that underlies the development of technology. In short, today’s global technology is created and disseminated by individuals who carry out their work under the influence of their particular class, education, political allegiance, geography, and intellectual history.

REALITY ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Each of us knows firsthand how information and communication technologies have affected almost all areas of our lives—for better, for worse, and ambiguously. Our world will never be as it was before, a truth that ancient philosophers knew and taught but which now is impacting us daily. The understanding of what it is to be human is undergoing a radical change, shifting reality away from what we experience with our bodies. Instead, information that can be stored and reproduced endlessly has become the measure of what matters. The promise of downloading individuality into information systems holds the hope of eternal—if disembodied—life. Advances in technologically lengthened life expectancy, bioenhancement, synthetic biology, and sentient AI—among new technologies—blur the boundaries between artificial and natural life, begging the question of what human life really consists of.

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Questions of what ultimately matters and why are not absent from technological innovation and scientific discovery—but they are frequently latent. Engineers and scientists are rarely specialized in philosophy, but they are nonetheless shaped by it. Universities have important roles in disseminating a wide range of information and ideas. There is nothing unique about Santa Clara’s championing of innovation and discovery. What is unique is how and why we do this. The deep intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jesuit education shapes our take on STEM and its relationship to other fields of learning. That heritage also helps us think about technology and integral human development.

In 1975 the Jesuit Order articulated its mission as “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.” SCU was an early adopter of this approach, and we look back with pride at our many justice-oriented endeavors. But humility demands acknowledging two lacunae in Catholic higher education: We do not have a commonly agreed understanding of “justice,” and Jesuit institutions in many countries have laid greater emphasis on justice, in some cases substituting it for faith, or making the “faith that does justice” an optional extra. If we can’t agree on religion, the argument goes, we can at least find shared territory around ethics. Yet there is an almost universal emphasis on ethics in U.S. higher education, and the words “social justice” appear in the mission statements of many schools. We can and must promote justice, which embraces the ethical standpoint and informs ethical action. Since the tech industry seems to stumble ethically pretty consistently, Santa Clara’s promotion of ethical technology is needed.

We should not congratulate ourselves for seeking justice: It is the minimal requirement for a truly human society. However—and here we are getting to the heart of the Jesuit distinctive—there is more to a life fully lived than ethics, and a flourishing society is based on more than justice. One of the most characteristic and distinctive notes of Jesuit education is not so much the ethical—what we do or should do—but its emphasis on the person as the measure of everything. The more we understand and share a vision of who and what we are and what it means to live well, as a global society as well as individuals, the better our decisions about what to do next will be. Attention to all dimensions of the human person is the most defining characteristic of Jesuit education. In that lie the reasons STEM is a Jesuit value.

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DEEP DNA

Humans need a sense of place in the world and a feeling of belonging to a community in order to flourish. Connectivity can engender that. But if Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message” is true, then when technology mediates our messages, do they necessarily become media-shaped?

Technology innovation disrupts in ways which are good: My 95-year-old tech-savvy mother in Wales now messages four generations of her family daily, alleviating the limitations of her physical existence. But we are more aware now of the limitations of “virtual communities.” Endless and knee-jerk “reply-all” emails do not correlate to quality communication. Serious thought requires rather more characters (as well as more character) than a tweet. Decrying the influence of communications technology stretches back to the invention of the moveable-type printing press. Yet a neo-Luddism that rejects digital culture is definitively not a Jesuit value: If we propose seeking and finding God’s will in all things, then God is to be found and justice promoted in STEM just as much as any other academic endeavor.

Core curricula exist in Jesuit higher education to make “educating the whole person” more than words. They are there to help STEM majors answer questions: What kind of world do you want to help build? Where are you going to find meaning in your life and resources for the times of crisis and change you will inevitably experience? Liberal arts students need to study science and technology to become literate citizens of an emerging world. Good core curricula are relevant and tailored, and include the history of math and science, and studying the philosophy of technology that includes ethical concerns but goes beyond that.

The estrangement between religion and science was a long, slow process, in which many voices, currents of thought, and historical experiences coincided. In contemporary university terms, it manifests itself structurally as well as personally. I graduated from high school fluent in four modern languages, but I fled mathematics at age 16 after an unhappy encounter with calculus, and most American high schoolers could best me in physics. My elder brother trained as a chemical engineer, and you would not be finding him visiting an art exhibition or reading poetry. The Renaissance pioneers of Jesuit education, Santa Clara’s deep DNA, would have abhorred this family split.

Historians of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering note that all these endeavors are rooted in the search for ultimate meaning. Pythagorean math is a mystical quest and Pythagoras’ children, today’s mathematicians, often continue to approach their craft with reverence and awe. Mathematics was central to the curriculum of the medieval Catholic universities of Europe. Newton, although hardly conventionally religious, carried out his research and made his discoveries in classical mechanics within a religious framework. What we now refer to as “science” was once called “natural philosophy.”

Jesuits, for much of our existence, have been itchily inquisitive about all things. The almost 500-year-old roll call of Jesuit mathematicians and scientists of all stripes is impressive, and none of these, I am guessing, found any intrinsic contradiction between the humanities and science, or faith and reason. Philosophy, according to Socrates, begins in wonder; and that sense of wonder is common to all of us who love our art—engineers and social scientists, venture capitalists and poets.

And for the Catholic mind, that wonder is at some mysterious level an experience of the divine.

ATMOSPHERIC CONDITIONS

Formal religion is not relevant to the internal considerations of wide sectors of the tech industry. The Bay Area is among the least religious areas of the United States, with only 42 percent of the population expressing a firm conviction in God’s existence. Religious “nones” are the largest single category in the geographical area of Silicon Valley. Certainly, the industry includes many people of faith. They work side by side with people who are engaged in a search of meaning in their own lives, but for whom communal creed and worship have no currency. It is, however, hard to avoid the impression that for many tech workers, faith, religion, or spirituality are all matters for silent privacy.

As a society, the global north imagines reality in a firmly secular way; that’s also increasing among the influential sectors of the global south that have benefited from higher education. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age argues that we live in an age—the first-ever for humanity—in which it is not only possible but, in many influential sectors, normal to imagine that a human life can be completely lived without any need for the divine or the transcendent to supply meaning, joy, and hope. God is missing, goes the saying, but not missed, leaving in his trail a religion-shaped vacuum.

Is the kind of technology we have open-minded and big-hearted enough to consider all that we need in order to have abundant lives?

There are many applicants for that position, among them utopianist technology, ready to step in and tackle human flourishing as a series of problems waiting to be solved. Santa Clara University finds itself at a privileged time of opportunity and challenge.

Technology’s potential for good is immense. So is its potential for darker impacts.

As the Jesuit university in the epicenter of the biggest ecosystem of information exchange in the history of humanity, we have a unique perspective—as well as a unique responsibility—to promote conversation and action on technology’s impacts, implications, and opportunities. There are no easy, quick fixes. But thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation with many different partners—and persistent, smart reflection—is part of what this University can do. Our efforts must be comprehensive, integrating perspectives from education, entrepreneurship, ethics, engineering, social justice, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and faith. The more that mindful action grows from an inclusive understanding of what it is to be human, the more impactful it will be.

This is an axial time in the history of our natural world and global society, and here is the location. This campus is the arena in which to foster education that scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians will incorporate to build technology for the whole person and for the benefit of all.

And we are the people to do this.

DORIAN LLYWELYN, S.J. is the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University. He is the first Welsh Jesuit since the 17th century. His work has taken him from London to Los Angeles, Egypt to Indonesia.

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