2.4. Seeking a New Balance

It is a long way from the mechanics of information processing to the pursuit of a new vision a new manner of seeing. But what I am suggesting is that we urgently need to combine this pursuit of a new, qualitative manner of seeing with our more technical ambitions if we are to counter the unhealthy one-sidedness of the latter. The meeting of the two different ways of knowing proves undeniably fruitful, even in strictly scientific terms. Look at what has been gained through the contact of botany and medicine with native plant wisdom. To take just one example: curare, the dart poison, led Western medicine to d-tubocurarine, a potent muscle relaxant. When administered during surgery, it greatly reduced the required levels of anesthesia. D-tubocurarine, Davis notes, "ended up saving far more human lives than curare had ever taken." More broadly, native wisdom has presented us with sounder images of the whole organism in its relation to health and disease:

For the Waorani, as for many indigenous peoples, good or bad health results not from the presence or absence of pathogens alone but from the proper or improper balance of the individual. Health is harmony, a coherent state of equilibrium between the physical and spiritual components of the individual. Sickness is disruption, imbalance, and the manifestation of malevolent forces in the flesh.

Slowly, sometimes reluctantly, our own medicine has been coming to terms with this awareness that illness and health are matters of harmony, balance, equilibrium. The projection of our fears upon "deadly" microorganisms as the sole and uncontested causes of disease will eventually be recognized as a latter-day echo of our ancestors' preoccupation with evil spirits. When, by contrast, we turn toward the organism as a whole, we will have to reckon with the fact that its harmony or disharmony cannot be read from instruments. True diagnosis requires nothing less than the kind of highly developed scientific art and qualitative vision that Schultes demonstrated with his plants.

Not many seem to recognize that in the age of digital technologies, our ability to read the qualities of our surroundings, detecting what is toxic and what is healing in them, what is in balance and what is out of balance, is even more crucial than it was for Tomo. It is also more difficult: the reading requires a greater, more self-conscious effort on our part precisely because our machines seem to make the effort irrelevant and futile. And yet the penalty for neglecting our responsibility is that the inhuman inertia of the machines will dictate our future.

It is not easy, after all, to read a collection of people sitting in front of monitors. Tomo, we can imagine, might need to make a quick, accurate assessment as to whether a group of warriors encountered in the forest was a peaceful hunting expedition or a raiding party. But how are we to gauge the friendliness of that roomful of programmers or data-entry clerks? Are they preying upon the larger society, or serving it? Are they working for the next Enron, or moving in a very different direction? Yet we must learn to read these things. The fact is that our social future will be determined by the human qualities of the activities being mediated through hundreds of millions of programmed devices, and by our ability consciously to resonate with and thereby to recognize these qualities.

To read the significance of our activities rather than being lulled by the blank expressions of our machines this is the skill and art demanded of us today. The skill and art are hardly new, however; it's just that our fascination with the technical aspects of our jobs encourages a much too narrow focus. Yet it is not that difficult, amid all the email exchange and programmed organization, to make an occasional inquiry of one's neighbor in the next cubicle: "How are you doing?" "How do you feel about your work?" "Do you think the product we're working on will help to heal our society or instead debilitate it?" Unfortunately, the devices themselves serve primarily to conceal and in some ways to nullify the qualitative dimensions of our activities. This is why, in a typical computer-based work group, the art of communication and openness to the other tends to give way to the mere manipulation of technical information. The scheduling of activities is tightly programmed. The budgeting and allocation of resources fall more or less automatically out of a spreadsheet. But the question remains: what do these databases and programs and numbers mean for the workers involved, for the surrounding community, for the global economy? What do we want them to mean or do our wants matter any longer?

If what all the employees in a large corporation actually sensed, qualitatively, about their own work and the company's endeavors were a matter of common inquiry and group reflection, could the business avoid going through a revolutionary transformation? Could it any longer be the same business? If, as a society, we cultivated anything like Tomo's attentive openness to the expressive qualities of his environment, surely the transformation I refer to would be commonplace rather than revolutionary. And the sudden surprise of an Enron would be next to impossible.

But why bother when the program seems to be the only real work? When the next email and next report and next milestone demand attention, and the software can be trusted to "take care" of the larger issues of coordination? Our own functioning becomes comfortingly undemanding on the qualitative and expressive level, with all the challenges reduced to merely technical ones. But if the qualitative and expressive level is where we discover both the noxious and healing properties of our environment, it is also where we discover the meaning of our work and the ethical nuances of our relations with each other. It is no surprise when, having replaced this level with the programmatic automatisms of information processing, we find organizations running badly off the tracks.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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