What will be the next BIG challenge for technology?

Standing on the back of a narrowboat, I got to thinking – it’s what you do when travelling at 3mph:

just how much technology has changed since the canal system was first built!

To start off with, the Industrial Revolution was all about big being best. A bigger machine was more powerful, could do more work, and could create more wealth.

(The picture shows Richard Arkwright’s Masson Mills in Derbyshire, built alongside the River Derwent in 1783.)

Huge mill buildings were built to harness the power of the big machines, and the large number of people who were needed to work the machines were housed in terraces which nestled under the shadow of the mills. Ultimately, whole families – generation after generation – went to work in the factories with their big, powerful machines.

So this technology generated social stability, with large numbers of people knowing their place (physically and socially) over a considerable period of time.

But in the world of technology the real power now seems to rest with the small – smaller and smaller micro-chips make computers more and more powerful, because they can process information the quickest. And ultimately, in our knowledge-based economies, the most powerful thing of all is a good idea – which has no material substance at all!

Unlike the big factory machines, this new technology is extremely mobile – responding to the demands of the market, and increasing the need for social mobility. This has created its own strains and stresses when compared with the ‘permanence’ of the old mill towns.

Both of these technologies have allowed us to massively extend our human capabilities:
• Firstly, because big powerful machines have grown our physical strength, and
• Secondly, because computerised data storage and manipulation has massively increased our knowledge to augment our brains.

After ‘strength’ and ‘knowledge’, what might be the next challenge for our technology?

At a recent conference held in Nottingham, the Dalai Lama was reported to say that the next big challenge for humanity, after ‘strength’ and ‘knowledge’, is that of ‘compassion’.

So can technology transform our capacity to be compassionate, in the way it transformed our strength and knowledge?

Could this help society manage growth in population, and the greater social mobility inherent in globalisation?

How could technology make us more compassionate?

Is it for technology to do more of the same: by applying mechanical strength or enhanced thinking and artificial intelligence for compassionate purposes?

Or is it for technology to create wealth which can then be applied to compassionate purposes?

Surely yes, but would that be good enough?

Would compassion expressed through technology be missing something – that something which can only be experienced direct from a compassionate person?

Compassion is suddenly big news. During the last week our Health Secretary Alan Johnson has announced government plans for nurses are to be rated according to the levels of care and empathy they give to patients.

No doubt there will also be additional training to improve performance; and as watching a video of one’s own working practices can be very instructive, (helping us to see ourselves as others see us) perhaps technology will help staff to change their behaviour into a more compassionate style?

So technology can help exert strength or grow knowledge for compassionate purposes, and it can even help with behavioural modification. But what of our motives – does the direct experience of someone else’s emotions, values and motivations make a real difference, which technology can never replace?

If motives really do matter, what if the breakthrough for technology would be something which, when applied (even ‘switched on?’) could make the user more compassionate than they otherwise would be?

After iTunes and iPods, could we buy an iHeart?

(And before you think this is all bonkers, it wasn’t long ago when a group visioning possible futures came up with the idea that men would have babies – and media reports suggest it’s already ‘happened’!)

Or is the concern for people’s motives just ‘touchy-feely’ nonsense, and it doesn’t matter as long as the necessary services are provided in a caring sort of way?

What do you think?


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7 Responses to “What will be the next BIG challenge for technology?”

  1. Amber Says:

    Look to nanotechnology as the big next challenge. Inserting microscopic man made computers into our bodies (bloodstream) to heal us. Like tiny robots. They will clear our arteries internally, kill cancer cells, what ever they are programmed to do. When you are done with them, they will slip out into the urine…

    Its a fascinating subject Graham…. you should do some reading on it.

    Another area to watch out with technology/medical science because that is where the next big leaps will be is cloning. Do read Edwina Curries book “The Ambassador” Its amazing……..

    my new address is http://ambermoon.wordpress.com


  2. Darla Says:

    “could we buy an iHeart?” how about an iBrain? or iCourage? I know it sounds like I am being funny-Wizard of Oz and all….but they were all seekng the Wizard (the wise man), and even in technology today, we are all still seeking something to fill the voids we have, and just keep moving forward to better and smaller…I don’t know what tech will come up with next, and I do love tech. But that simple question sparked something in me..so thanks! came over from Brainteaser..I totally ♥ her!

  3. Macsen Liviu Says:

    No, it looks like more and less technology, like all places!

    I think sometime you need some nontechnology to relax, to escape from “this world” 🙂

    But we can’t leave without technology, because this mean evolution!

    This is my opinion!

    Thank you and God bless you!

  4. Carol King Says:

    Great post, it really got me thinking. I personally would hope for
    less technology. Like the previous commentor said we can’t live without technology, however more just gives me more things to get away from to relax.

  5. Sherita Searcy Says:

    Technology is just a tool that is being used to communicate an age old message. The heart of man can never be replaced. We use technology to further our cause for compassion — we are just doing it in a way that conforms to this era. Some believe technology is taking over human existence. That notion is a little far fetched. However, the Internet is the language of this time and should be embraced and used for its purposes. To completely eliminate ones self from the technology age all together would be foolish. The better solution is to forge a balance of the best of both worlds and make it work to your advantage. Smile

  6. brainteaser Says:

    Hello Graham. I came here as soon as you posted in my blog, but I decided not to post my comment yet. I wanted to really think your questions over. Now here it is.

    I think of compassion as something that is innate in us, something that is real. It can only be there or it isn’t. And technology for me is a medium. It is a life-altering medium for sure — its impact on our life is enormous and, amazingly, it can even out-power us when in comes to efficiency. But, still, I wouldn’t like to confuse technology with humans.

    Technology is merely digits, chips, machines. Love and compassion do not come from micro-chips; they emanate from the heart. And, unlike humans, technology does not have a heart; hence, it CANNOT know love, nor have compassion. So at the moment, I cannot think how it could be possible to have “switched-on” compassion. Real love and compassion are not something that can be faked. They are above faking.

    Technology CANNOT produce compassion. Ever. What technology can do is SPREAD compassion. Through technology, we can have a wider reach. Take the internet. In several clicks, we can show compassion. We can give a grieving blogmate some comforting words; we can let someone know that we care, that he/she is not alone. We can make the compassionate call. We can outpour our love.

    I think what I am saying is this: technology is NOT compassion. It can only help spread compassion. But for this to happen, compassion has to be present first. In our heart.

  7. catchthevision Says:

    I am so, so grateful for the thinking which you have all put into making your comments. Together they address such a range of issues which help make sense of technology in world where we need more compassion.
    Amber, you are right in that nanotechnology will be a huge challenge. The way it works is almost beyond comprehension. We have to hope that those involved are able to manage the ethical dimension as much as the scientific issues. There’s also a real need for the rest of us to grow our understanding, and not take as truth everything that journalists might write!
    Darla, seeking wisdom and something to fill the voids we have? What an amazing insight. The shiny lights of technology can so easily blind us from this truth!
    Macsen Liviu, I agree that technology is part of evolution. It could just be that technology is allowing humanity to evolve what we are doing, quicker than our social, psychological and ethical processes can evolve to cope with it? Hence this debate, and thanks for your thoughts.
    Carol King, get away and relax! Indeed, let’s not forget our humanity.
    Sherita, balance the best of both worlds. Absolutely!
    Brainteaser, technology is not compassion, it can help spread it. I could not have put it better myself. Your writing has been so insightful and full of careful thought.
    Finally, I feel it’s been a real privilege to have sparked off such wonderful responses. I had no idea that the use of technology could help illuminate a topic like compassion – but that’s probably because you are all very special people. Please care for yourselves in the way you clearly think of and care for others.

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