The Ultimate Question

by Terry Heaton
The TerminatorThere's a lasting prophecy among humans in the West that technology will one day enslave humankind, and this has birthed myth and science fiction over the centuries. The whole "Terminator" series is based on the premise that machines have taken over the world, so what's left of humankind sends a person back in time to right the wrong. It's fascinating stuff, and it scratches a deep fear within us, because we don't trust ourselves in the West, so how can we possibly trust the machines that we make?

One of the fundamental principles of Western Civilization is that humans are, at core, corrupt and untrustworthy. Humankind is, therefore, in need of redemption, and this drives our institutions. Why do we have three branches of government in the U.S., if not to provide checks and balances on human nature in government? Our view of other cultures is colored by this belief, so it's easy to understand why we fear technology.

Commander DataIn the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series, Lt. Commander Data is an android with a conscience, capable of making decisions based on the welfare of the whole, not his own. His maker also created a twin, one that didn't contain "the chip" that made him trustworthy, and this was a source of conflict in the series. Again, it's another illustration of how we cannot trust the makers of machines, and therefore cannot trust the machines either.

In other science fiction, machines are weapons used by superior cultures to either enslave or otherwise force their will on humankind. Gort, the robot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," is an example of a machine used by an alien race to open the collective eyes of the earth to the dangers of nuclear weapons.

This issue of the trustworthiness of humankind came to mind the other day while watching a rather insightful video of John Hagel's speech at this year's Supernova conference, a gathering of great minds to talk about things that people with great minds talk about.

Hagel was asked to speak about our increasingly networked world — something that strikes terror in the hearts of those who fear the machines. Humankind connected? How awful! Hagel used his time to ask a series of questions that have not been answered yet. "What if there is no equilibrium (in a networked world)," he asked, along with, "How do you find stability within agility?" He continued, "What's required for effective participation in the highest value flows of knowledge?" "How do we keep from drowning while tapping into that which is relevant?" and "How do we measure success when so many of the rules are changing?"

Hagel recently joined Deloitte & Touche "with a mandate to establish a major new research center" in Silicon Valley, where they'll be studying these questions and more. They'll explore "key business issues created by the intersection of business strategy and information technology." Before his new mission, Hagel was a management consultant and author of three books, Net Gain, Net Worth and Out of the Box.

He also asked the audience to send him what they felt was the ultimate question in a networked world. In my mind, there's only one question that really matters, and that is who or what is the governor in a networked world? This is a profoundly important question as we drift from the ordered world of modernism into the fearful abyss of postmodern chaos. What happens if we ARE all connected? Is humankind ready to exist in a world where the governor is internal, or will we always require that which is external? Or do we really need a governor at all?

I watched an old episode of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" the other day in which Detective Logan was trying to coax information from a man to get him to betray his own father "for the greater good." The guy was an ex-Marine who understood the necessity of sacrifice, so he did the "right thing." In the movie "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," Mr. Spock sacrifices himself similarly saying, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

These are romantic notions and highlight that, in our view, the most lofty aspect of humankind is self-sacrifice, the service of others. We love stories like this and come away feeling proud of us, our race. In various science fiction books and movies, we are the ultimate good guys of the universe, because someone in a time of crisis — or even many someones — makes the decision to sacrifice themselves for others.

Unfortunately, those are the rare moments of human experience. Day in and day out, millions of people function on pure selfishness. It sickens us. We rail against it. Yet each and everyone of us behaves that way with regularity. It's in our DNA, like it or not.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue take advantage of our selfishness (hey, they're human, too) by serving up images of how life is always better a little farther up the hill, and what we have is a culture that's frustrated, disappointed, and up to our necks in debt.

So if we're all going to be networked together, each out for him or herself, what kind of world would that be? Could such a people move the whole forward without some form of external governor? I'm not sure. On the other hand, there is every bit as much room for evil with such a governor in place, and this, too, is evidenced throughout history, because it turns out those "in charge" are in it for themselves, too.

The Tower of BabelLet's go back to the source code for Western Civilization, the Bible, and examine an event described in the book of Genesis, the creation of the tower of Babel. You don't have to be a believer of the Bible to appreciate the text, because regardless of its origin, the stories contain fascinating lessons for humankind to ponder. The question of myth, legend or truth is irrelevant in the context of simply applying one's thoughts to the messages contained therein.

Here's the text from Genesis, chapter 11.

  • Now the whole earth had one language and few words.
  • And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
  • And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
  • Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
  • And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.
  • And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
  • Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."
  • So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
  • Therefore its name was called Ba'bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
This story is mostly used by Bible teachers to provide a simple understanding for children on why people speak different languages, but that misses the real point of the story, which is the optimistic notion that people of one mind can do anything. Apparently, in God's view, that wasn't a good thing, and this, again, reflects the core belief of the West.

But the idea drives many forward in the quest to overcome geography and language and the various artificial walls we put between each other. This quest, however, runs smack into the institutions that supposedly serve the culture. because all institutions function as external governors. As the walls that separate the elite from the masses crumble under the attack of the personal media revolution, a great friction is building and there will be a season of great difficulty for humankind as a result.

One of the basic functions of institutions is self-preservation, and this is done, in part, by separating people from knowledge. It is much better to keep people in the dark and assure yourself elite status in the culture than to let everybody act on their own behalf. This suits the status quo and those who view the rule of law as absolute. It is from this segment of our culture that the prophecy of the enslavement of humankind by machines is sustained.

As noted earlier, this is a popular theme in science fiction and is perhaps best exemplified by the arch-enemy of the United Federation of Planets in the "Star Trek" series, the Borg. The Borg culture is certainly networked; they all work from what's called a "hive mind." The governor is the queen. Their mission is the consumption of technology to better the quality of life for the hive, and they are powerful beyond measure. In the pursuit of their mission, they absorb other cultures into theirs through "assimilation," which involves the implantation of cybernetics and nanoprobes.

"Resistance is futile," they say, and that terrifies us, mostly because it messes with our free will. This terror makes for great books and films, but does it necessarily follow that a networked world means giving up free will for the sake of some external governor?

termitesThe artificial intelligence community has been studying the behavior of what's known as "social insects" for years, looking for reasonable explanations of how termites, ants and honey bees communicate and work together day in and day out. In his fascinating essay, Collective Intelligence in Social Insects, David Gordon writes:

...a key concept in the collective intelligence of social insects is...the termites' actions are not coordinated from start to finish by any kind of purposive plan, but rather rely on how the termite's world appears at any given moment. The termite does not need global knowledge or any more memory than is necessary to complete the sub-task at hand, it just needs to invoke a simple behavior dependent on the state of its immediate environment...the process has been observed not just in termites, but also in ants, bees, and wasps in a wide range of activities.
So the termites don't have a preset plan or a "queen termite" with a megaphone shouting directions. Nor do they have the Star Trek "hive mind" that guides the building process; they simply do what the current situation demands, and the end result is an elaborate housing development.

Of course, human beings aren't termites; we can always say no ("You guys build the damned thing; I feel, cough-cough, a little virus coming on."), and when we do accomplish the task before us, we're often looking for some form of reward.

If we were to anthropomorphize the insects, we would assume that these creatures act through self-sacrifice. Why else would ants drown themselves to help others cross a stream? It could also be self-preservation, because to not act as the environment demands would be suicidal for all. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, and this, it seems, is the way of nature.

But ants and termites aren't human, and so they just do what they're supposed to do and don't ask for a pat on the back or other form of compensation when the job is done.

So the real question, again, is what will serve as the governor of a networked culture? Will it be internal? Can humankind — armed with the artificial omniscience of being linked — set aside the will of the self to work in the best interests of the whole? Will we one day discover that self-interest is really group-interest? I'm not holding my breath, because my experience suggests this is unlikely. I am, however, willing to hope — that connectivity will bring about something new in humankind, a group-think that will function as governor of the whole.

I won't see it in my lifetime, and I fear we'll go through a season (or more than one) of external governors to keep our connectivity in line with some outside set of beliefs that are enforced through rules.

Regardless, I still believe that a networked world is a good thing for humankind, and that the most immediate fruit of which is the crumbling of the paradigm of control by the access to protected knowledge. This will accelerate as we move deeper into the postmodern era.

And as it changes, the nature of authority changes. The doctor is still the doctor — and you can bet I want the most learned surgeon on the planet to operate on me — but the nature of his or her authority has changed, because I can now do my own research and come to my own conclusions about what's wrong with me. This is an enormous threat to the institution of medicine, but what about other institutions? The law, government, education, the media. They must all find new ways to maintain their place in the culture.

I'm reminded of a great line from the 1992 film "Lorenzo's Oil," about the quest of two parents to find a cure for the complex disease (Adrenoleukodystrophy) that was killing their son. "The interest of the scientist is not the same as the interest of the parent," said Lorenzo's father, brilliantly portrayed by Nick Nolte. It beautifully expresses the energy potential of a networked world versus one built on hierarchy.

I wish John Hagel all the best in his new endeavor and hope that his group is able to take all of the above into consideration as they explore tomorrow.

And to the writers of science fiction, keep writing and reminding us of our fears. The skepticism is healthy, after all.