Values, Technology and the Bottom Line: Compassion and Joy

I think that values can affect our relationship with technology in two ways: the why and the how.

Values

My foundation values are compassion and joy. I don’t want these to be seen as separate: for me, ‘joy and compassion’ is a description of life (there is no one word so I’d need to speak of joyful-compassion or compassionate-joyfulness).

This seems to leave out a lot (and it does, but perhaps not some of the important things).
Truth is included. To genuinely help someone means being focused on what is actually the case (with regard to both the person and their situation). Likewise having the sense of being genuinely in touch with ‘this stuff’ and not kidding myself can be a feeling of joy.
Awareness is included. We can’t act with genuine compassion without being in touch with ourselves, the other person and the situation. Compassion includes the desire to effectively improve the situation or a person’s experience of it. Awareness is needed. Likewise joy is not a high that is indifferent to what is. Joy is about something: the beauty of this sunset, the delight in making exactly the right move in this game or hearing just the right word of reassurance.

Beauty is included. Beauty has more to do with the joy part of the story than the compassion part. Compassion can have a very great sense of injustice and little sense of beauty. When we are crusading for justice we can be quite insensitive to beauty. Beauty does seem to me to be part of the experience of joy — there is a sense of rightness.

Technology

Sometimes we do things for their own sake, and other times we do things to achieve something else. These aren’t hard and fast categories. I may go for a walk because I enjoy walking, I may walk to the shop to buy the newspaper, or I may walk to the shop to buy the newspaper and enjoy the walk.

Usually though there are some things that we do for what they achieve, rather than for their own sake. I don’t enjoy tidying up — but do it to find that thing I can’t locate (it’s buried somewhere!).

In the social world technologies are very common. We organise bureaucratically so that people will be treated ‘fairly’, we use footnotes to acknowledge the contribution that others have made to our thinking. Bureaucracy and footnotes are both technologies in the sense I am using the term.

The problem as I see it is that technology can become an end in itself. For instance, people come to value bureaucracy (‘due process’) itself — the result being that if the bureaucratic process is adhered to, then it is thought that the outcome will be fair. Similarly a Ph.D. with poorly done footnotes will be disqualified, however original the thought; using the technology properly has become a value in itself.

(The idea that we do something to achieve something else implies a stable and predictable environment. This is an assumption: most of the time our lives are pretty stable and predictable, so that we forget that it is an assumption. In times and places of rapid change, this no longer applies — Amazon re-invented the rules of business, and email, with its semi-private/semi-public mix, alters the rules of letter writing. The rules of business and writing are still catching up with the changes that computers have brought.)

Technology and Values

I think that values can affect our relationship with technology in two ways: the why and the how.

First, it gives the reason to why we do something. I go for a walk to get a newspaper or stay fit and healthy. In this sense our values judge our technology.

If we value fairness we can ask if a bureaucratic system achieves this. We can also ask if the technology has unintended consequences that get in the way of what using the technology is intended to achieve: do footnotes and the need to document everything become such burdens that they impede original thought?

For me, judged against compassionate-joyfulness, both bureaucracy and footnotes are of very dubious value.

Second, our values can inform how we do what we do.

Learning a musical instrument will involve producing particular notes, putting them together in particular ways and so on. There are various ways to teach this. One is repeated playing of scales, another is starting with singing (Kodály and traditional Indian Classical, for example), while another is using practise pieces. The emphasis can be on precise reproduction of the score (no mistakes is good) or interpretation (mistakes don’t matter so much). Valuing joy means making choices amongst these options (perhaps coming up with new ones) or ordering them in a particular way (learning a scale to express what you want to say is different to learning the scale because the teacher says so).

On a shorter time-scale: walking to the shop I can be focused on doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible or taking time ‘to smell the flowers’.

The way we do something will also affect how much our experience is joyfully-compassionate.

This is my bottom line: this compassionate-joyfulness or joyful-compassion is what I think of as good. It is not good because it achieves something but because it is good in itself.

Do you have this kind of bottom line? If so, I’d like to hear what it is. Or, perhaps, you feel that having a bottom line like this is a doubtful thing to do. If so I’d like to hear from you, too. I look forward to your comments.

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