Jun 6, 2015
Kentaro Toyama: Beyond Technological Utopianism--Reclaiming the Human in Development
Birju Pandya: Thanks so much for that introduction, Nipun. As a business person, I would say that if 11 hours are spent on technological devices, we still have room for 55% growth. I have kind of gone back and forth on this question myself that I am really excited to hear what Kentaro has to say about it. I was at a gathering about six weeks ago on technology and consciousness, and there were several monastic individuals in the room. And this question was invited how this technology has been helpful. A gentleman raised his hand and said that his relationship with his partner began over Skype. The first 11 months when they were together was daily Skype conversations. There you have a technology that seemingly is values agnostic, and it's been used for supporting connections between two people who are fairly spiritual in their intentions. Similarly, I use an app on my phone called "Insight Timer," which is a technology that helps me track and not forget to meditate. I found that to be quite helpful, and of course at the same time, we see the deleterious effects, things like Facebook and intention deficit in so many young people today with truly an addition. I was with a young person earlier this week, just two days ago, she readily admitted to be addicted to Facebook, and rather to do nothing to change it either. So I am definitely quite curious about this question, and would love to move into the introduction for Dr. Kentaro, who is a guest today, a technologist, who is deeply committed to this concept of human virtue development. He is a professor at the University of Michigan, and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. Kentaro, thanks so much for joining us today.
Kentaro Toyama: Thank you! Thanks, Nipun. Thanks, Birju.
Birju: So we just start in the moment. How are you today?
Kentaro: I am doing very well. How is everybody else?
Birju: I get the sense that we are all good. But they are muted as of this moment. We will come around to group questions on the top of the hour. On the way over there, I am curious to start out with one of the context-setting pieces and hearing a bit about the inception points in your own life. On one hand, you can be disguised as a technologist, but as Nipun said, somewhere along the way, these questions of intention and virtue started to become important. So I am curious how that came about for you in your own life.
Kentaro: I think the most relevant incident is probably somewhat recent. I have a computer science PhD. I worked at Microsoft Research for a total of 12 years. The last five years we spent in India, where I helped start a research lab in India. When I moved to India, I changed a research direction and decided to focus my efforts on trying to find different ways to use electronic technologies for social economic development for very poor communities. So we used PCs, mobile phones, and custom hardware to support efforts in agriculture, education, micro-finance, healthcare, governance, and so on. If not that technology was going to change everything in dramatic ways, at least it would be able to help in a variety of situations. What I discovered after over five years of doing this work with a team of about 10 researchers, half of whom were technologists, half of whom were social scientists. We have done maybe 50 odd research projects over that time. All of which had to do with using technology in some way to support development.
At the end of it, I looked back to see what really was the defining factor in those projects that had social impact and those where we might have a few research results but nothing significant in terms of impact on people's lives. And the defining difference was who our partners were, not how good the technology was. Specifically, if our partners were very committed to their missions, and good at what they did, then they would use the technology that we designed in a positive way to enhance what they were already doing.
On the other hand, if our partners were not particularly committed to their missions or not capable of executing their missions, then it didn't make a difference. No matter how good the technology was, it didn't help. In some cases, it actively harmed the situation. So I remember one particular time when I was visiting one of our projects in Education. I went to visit a peri-urban government school just outside of Bangalore. We were trying to roll out a project, for which we had found good results, and a control experiment done previously where you provide a certain kind of tool that allows teachers to very easily put up images on a projector, and they would be able to present visual materials without having to do preparation like with PowerPoint slides. We found that kids learn more at least with this set of visual content this way. But when I went to visit this school, what I found was that when the class started, for the first few minutes, the teacher was not able to get the projector to work. So he started twiddling around, and then eventually, I jumped in to help. We had to reboot the laptop because it wasn't talking to the projector. By the time we got everything started back up again, all the students back in their seats, something like 20 minutes of a 45-minute-class was over. No matter how good the technology was, without the larger system support of IT system as well as good teacher training to use the technology, and so on, it just didn't make a difference. In fact, it probably caused some harm.
I thought this over and over again in different kinds of projects. Basically, it wasn't the technology doing the magic. Whenever technology did something good, it was human beings doing the right thing and using technology as the tool to amplify what they were doing. So I came to the conclusion that technology amplifies underlying human forces, and it doesn't fix broken systems, or broken institutions. With respect to human virtue, I started asking myself how you decide when technology actually works well. It comes down to the same thing that allows us to decide when other things work well. I have a new book that just came out last week called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. In part two of that book, I talked about heart, mind, and will, which is good intention, good judgment, and good self-control. I believe those three things are the building blocks of all human virtues. If those things are in place, or to a high degree, then you can in fact use technology in a positive way and good outcomes would happen. But if they are not in place, then there is no technology that will fix the situation. They are the deeply social challenges that we have to address.
Birju: I would love to touch on both sides of what you shared --- that one on the technology and the other on virtues. On the technology piece, you summarized this. But at one point, you wrote this phrase that really stuck to me: "Technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity." You outlined how you arrived at that conclusion. I am curious what your other ramifications are about that conclusion.
Kentaro: That's a good question. It's a very simple idea in principle. All I am saying is that technology is a tool that amplifies whatever people want to do with it. But it has very significant consequences that I think are not fully appreciated. One of them as I mentioned earlier is that the technology, by itself, never fixes dysfunctional institutions or dysfunctional societies. So if you try to address a problem, let's say, that you have a corrupt government, and there is no political will to eliminate corruption. It doesn't matter how many tools of transparency you try to apply because, in the end, the government has the power to shut off any such tools. I saw many multiple incidents of that, even in Bangalore. Another consequence is that an even dissemination of technology doesn't address inequality. If you believe that social economic inequalities are a problem, then building more technologies are just not the solutions. I'll give you several examples of that.
A couple of years ago, massively open online courses were big rage. One of the things that people thought they were going to do was to democratize education because now, all of a sudden, you didn't need to pay thousands of dollars to have a university education. You could just go to New York's public libraries and access the Internet, and study up. But studies have shown since then that people who most often completed these courses are college-educated professionals with jobs, not high school dropouts who don't have jobs. So exactly the people who already have a lot of educational capacity are the ones who are building on it, not the people who don't have education. One of the most striking things is, easy for anybody to see; you can find data readily available on Wikipedia and online, the following: Over the last four decades in the United States we have seen an explosion of digital innovation. Everything from the Internet to cell phones, to Facebook, to Google, to Microsoft, and whatever digital technology that we think of as being incredibly helpful has happened in the last four decades. During that same span of time, the United States has not seen poverty decline. In fact, it's gone up a little bit since recession. Inequality has skyrocketed, and social mobility has crystallized, whether it's very little of it even compared to other developed-world countries. If you believe that technology by itself, both the invention of it and the greater penetration of it in our society, somehow, in and of itself, causes positive social changes. These facts just fly in the face of that idea.
Birju: That's very helpful. So going back to the side of virtues, you mentioned good self-control, good judgment -- where are you seeing this kind of development happening, weather or not in technology? How your background and upbringing would you say that you are pre-exposed to thinking about being open to this concept of virtue development.
Kentaro: In part two of my book, I stressed more about what it really means to have an overall social development. Coming from this idea that even for technology to have positive impact, you need human virtues in place. The next question becomes how you develop those virtues. To be completely honest, I don't think we know enough as a human civilization to have a good model for how that happens. But I have my own ideas and in the book I speculate. I think we develop virtues indirectly as we chase our own aspirations.
To answer your second question, as a kid I was a pretty lazy kid who just barely did enough work to get by in school, but it was because I wanted to be good at things and to be recognized for being good at things that I worked hard in college to do the things that I wanted. So in some sense, I've learned the self-control in order to achieve aspirations that I had as a teenager, as a young man. Everywhere I look, whenever it is, some kind of transformation where a person goes from being a little bit more selfish or being more self-involved, to being somebody who is more empathetic, or more capable of pursuing their own passions, it's always because they are following some inner drummer that is extensively chasing something. But in the process of chasing that something, they develop these capacities.
In the book, I cite some examples of this, a university in Ghana, Ashesi University, that was founded by a former Microsoft program manager named Patrick Awuah. He was born and raised there, then moved to the United States on a scholarship to attend Swarthmore University. His early ambitions were relatively modest, exactly the kind we all have. He wanted to have a good job. He was interested in Engineering, so he wanted to have intellectual contribution in the technology sector. He joined Microsoft. He happened to join exactly the time when Microsoft was rapidly growing. So he did very well. After 10 years, he looked back and said that "I have achieved what I originally set out to do, and it helped me build a lot of skills. I know how to run an organization. I know how to manage other people. But I am kind of bored of doing this now." I had a conversation with him once. He said it just didn't seem that important to figure out what button should go where on an operative UI. Until that moment, that was his primary occupation. So he quit Microsoft, and went to business school, solely for the purpose of learning how to start a university in Ghana.
In 2002, that university was founded. It's called Ashesi University. I know the story well because I went to teach there in the first year. Ashesi University is doing an amazing thing. They have about 400 students at any given point. The early students have graduated. They themselves have become mini-Patricks in many ways. Many of them have started their own non-profit organizations. They do well on their respective jobs. What's interesting about all this was that it all comes down to some transformative change that happened in Patrick as a result of him chasing his own aspirations.
Birju: What I hear you sharing is intensely personal kind of approach. You mentioned in the book too "to invest in the carpenter rather than the tool." Taking that individual approach, then applying it in groups, are there ways you see this being done in families or classrooms or offices?
Kentaro: Yeah, certainly. Heart, mind, and will, that's what I call the intention, judgment, and self-control. Heart, mind, and will applies just as much to groups and even to whole societies as it does to individuals. So of course the mechanism for a group intention is very different from how individuals decide what they want to do. But I do think that groups have aspirations. For example, even the United States has its aspiration to be a beacon for liberty, entrepreneurship, and things like that. It's very different from the aspiration of North Korea. Different groups have different aspirations. They also have different degrees of judgment. You might argue that the United States' judgment with respect to its foreign policies is not always the best. Other countries might have wiser or less wise judgment. Then finally groups have different capacity to execute on whatever it is they claim they want. Sometimes we say one thing but we are not able to execute on it, either as groups or nations.
At some level, individual heart, mind, and will is important for group heart, mind, and will, and it forms the building blocks. But they also combine in very complex ways that sociologists, economists and other social scientists study. These are fairly abstract concepts, but I think they are useful to think about. You can often find that the entities that have two out of the three things to a high degree, but because they are missing one of them, the right thing doesn't happen.
Birju: So coming back to the technology, part of my work is working in the economic paradigm that we exist in today. The more I learn about the paradigm, the more I become aware that there are invisible systems that are governing us. Some would take that approach to technology today as an invisible system. It's a bit like a religion in the face of what many believe to be global crises. There is a group of people who follow this idea that technological innovation will save us, whether it's climate change or biodiversity question, or even a socio-economic inequality you mentioned earlier. Can you just outline the missing logic in terms of addressing systemic issue through technological innovation?
Kentaro: That's a great question. Let me tie it to something that you started this conversation earlier on, which is about how you use technology to help with things like reminding you to meditate. I always go back to amplifications. What a technological amplification basically says is not that technology is useless or powerless. In fact, amplification is a powerful phenomenon. It means whatever you are doing, the technology can help you do more of. But amplification means that the direction, in which the technology works is determined by human beings. In the example that you gave of wanting to meditate, yeah, of course, any system that reminds you to meditate, if you already believe that meditation is important, is going to help you do it better. But those systems are completely powerless to change the mind of somebody who doesn't believe in meditation.
These are all examples that I think as the lock on the refrigerator, which is the idea that using the technology to help your own self-control. But if you don't believe in the application of that self-control for that purpose in the beginning, then it's pointless. You have the key to that lock. You can always unlock it. You can always gorge on the food that you don't think is such a big deal to overeat. So the technologies can be used in powerful ways. I think most of us believe that we are in fact using them the right ways. Climate change is another one.
There is no doubt at this point that if we're really going to solve climate change problem, it's going to depend a lot on technology in some form. But the decision to use those technologies is still a deeply human one, and it seems very clear to me that as much as technological advances happened with respect to green technologies and dealing with climate change that we haven't made the human changes that are required to put them into place. At least in the United States, we haven't even been able to do very simple things, finding a way to put a limit on carbon emissions as a political process. Because of that, the technological development itself is slower than it would be otherwise, and most entities that are causing emissions have no incentive to change their behavior.
Birju: I want to dive deeper in what you just said. Part of my work has been in the climate change arena. I want to describe in my head what I perceive as two different categories of technology. On one hand, we have technologies coming out on carbon sequestration, pulling huge amounts of carbon, literally just taking it and putting it under the ground. Or seeding the clouds with some kind of sulfur so it rains more in the areas that are drought and need the rain for crops. So that's one way of thinking about technology. There is another way of thinking about technology that personally I feel more resonated with, but I am curious on your thoughts. That is allowing for what we call human-scale technology. Allowing people, individuals, who want to exist in farms in small plots of land to actually have access to the lawn mower equivalent of the industrial tractor, which is right now incredibly expensive and large and built for farms that are ten thousands plus acres in size. How can we make that something that a farmer who has a hundred acres can use? How will you think about the difference between those two categories of technology? To you, are they even two separate categories?
Kentaro: Well, you kind of answered the question towards the end. It’s not clear to me what the difference is. I thought you were going to say there is a category of technology that helps people monitor their own, let's say, power usage, and encourages them to use less of it. And there are people who work on that technology as well.
As for the smaller scale, to be honest with you, I don't know this area particularly well, but from what I have read, there are economists who say the solution for us is not to have smaller scale, everybody have their own farm, and do small scale agriculture. At least, that's not the direction, in which we are going to solve our climate change problems. It's only because the fundamental reality of these things is that you can actually address problems with efficiency, or pollution and all these things, in a more efficient way if you do it as a big system. For example, for the same reason that a motorcycle engine is always going to be less efficient as a percentage of fuel burned than a car. The idea that you can shrink systems, and disaggregate them, and therefore undo the incredible harm that we are doing to the environment, I think, is misguided.
The real problem is that no matter what we do, there is something inside of human beings that wants to increase consumption, wants to grow wealth. This, I think, comes back to the question of virtue. Until we recognize that we fundamentally just cannot sustain the kind of high end lifestyle that we have, especially, in a rich world, there is no way in the world that we can have seven billion people on the planet all having that same lifestyle. We need to somehow curb that. I don't think technology is going to help.
In fact, there is an interesting paradox called Jevons paradox, in which if you make certain things more efficient and less costly, the absolute amount people end up consuming is more now they can afford it. It seems they are doing it in a more efficient way. The original discovery about this was with respect to coal, where Jevons, who was an economist, I think, in the 19th century, found that as coal prices declined, you would think that maybe people can, with a smaller amount of money, satisfy their own needs for energy, and therefore save money doing so. But in fact, people ended up spending more and, of course, consuming more coal now they could do so at a cheaper rate.
Birju: So one more question on this, which is that you mentioned earlier that part of your work with Microsoft earlier in your career was socioeconomic development. Now knowing the Jevons paradox that you just described, how does that impact what technology could be for the emerging markets, so that it supports heart, mind, and will, instead of increasing consumption?
Kentaro: One thing that I think we cannot do as a relatively well off people is to expect that other people who are much poorer than us are going to somehow become more enlightened than us, in a deep fog in terms of wisdom. As much as I think it's a huge problem that the developing world is going to end up, as it grows, becoming a major contribution to many of these global problems, I also think it's incredibly hypocritical for us, especially who live in the United States, to suggest they should keep their environmental impact lower when we can't even address ours. Various statistics show that, for example, the average American consumes something like 32 times the amount of natural resources that the average person does, let's say, in India. If that's true, then what are we doing going to India and asking them to reduce their emissions or reduce their consumption? Obviously, this is exactly the place we should be looking at ourselves first.
The other thing is that, when I am optimistic about human nature, what I actually think is that human beings kind of naturally do eventually come around to the right conclusion, as long as they are able to achieve their aspirations. It's when their aspirations are thwarted that all kinds of evil things tend to happen. I am actually perfectly OK with India and China and other developing countries going as fast as they possibly can, achieving their income-related aspirations, even it's at the cost of worse environment. That means by doing it, they can then end up moving on to the kind of conversations that you and I are now having, which is because we don't have to think about having food on the table three times a day, because we are satisfied with our jobs that we can actually have the psychological slack to think about what's the better way to live. You can't expect that a poor farmer in the middle of rural India who is struggling to feed their family, or even an urban factory worker who has to work 14-hour-days just to make ends meet. I think it's expecting a lot for them to become more enlightened than us, and believe they shouldn't be consuming as much. For them, that aspiration is I would like to have the big house and two cars and TV just like people in America do.
Birju: So you are saying that we must be the change we want to see in the world.
Kantaro: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's true. The best thing we can be is a good role model. For example, Americans start to think, look, we don't care about consumption anymore, and we are going to try to live a life with simplicity, and find that kind life is much more happy and pleasant than the one we have been chasing, then I am almost certain that a whole bunch of other developing-world countries start thinking, hmmm, that sounds interesting, maybe that's what we should be chasing after.
One of the more interesting things that you see, and I believe a lot people on this call are fairly international, is that if you go outside of the United States, outside of the developed world, there is certainly a desire to be like the developed world, whether that's good or bad. That's kind of like younger siblings looking up to older siblings and wanting (to do) whatever the older siblings are doing. If that's true, that trend is going to continue. As what you said, you have to be the change that you want to see in the world. We are in the position where we are being looked up to, so our choices ultimately help shape the people that are eventually going to be in a similar situation as us.
Birju: So building on that, I am curious how your own life intersects with your work. How are these lessons of being the change as it relate to technology put into practice that embodies in your work construct and your family construct?
Kentaro: Right. That's a great question. I was very lucky as far as the family I was born to. We are not like crazily wealthy, but we have never struggled for food. If you look at the worldly context, we are certainly rich. My parents never have to worry about how I was gonna eat on any given day. They could give me the best education they could afford, sending me to good colleges and so on. So for whatever reason, it has never been the case for me that I find income interesting as something to chase. However, those things that parents always invested in me this belief that I should be the best at whatever I do, and be recognized for it, and I recognize that this desire is deeply deeply imbedded in myself. In and of itself is not bad except that it isn't necessarily focused on a societal contribution. It's not really focused on making the world a better place. It's really just about personal ego, gratification.
I recognize this in myself when I was in high school, having to do with a high school egg-drop competition. I remember winning the contest but wasn't announced on the public announcement system. I was disappointed. I asked myself why I was disappointed, especially if I had won the contest. I realized that I was looking for public recognition. That is a demon that I have lived with through my entire life. It's still with me today. Every day I am thinking about how I get rid of this. But over the decade, I've come to realize that this is not something that's going to go away because I think about it. It's certainly not going away because I use some kind of technology to help me manage this particular desire. It's deeply there. But one thing that has helped is, in chasing that desire, that aspiration, I have come to multiple conclusions. One is that, through partial success at doing it, I come to realize that achieving it, in and of itself, doesn't make myself particularly any happier than I was otherwise. Over time, the chasing of the aspiration have kind of eroded the desire. I see myself being less interested in public recognition in a funny way because I have chased it. So more and more I feel like I haven't had mental-slack to chase other aspirations that have always been with me, but would never be as loud as the one for recognition. Because one of them is the desire to make an impact on the world that is positive for other people, and to help other people achieve their own aspirations.
Birju: So what I hear you describing is consciousness development, an evolution in what we personally, collectively, want. I am curious when you look at it from that lens, would you then say that by satiating one's wish to some small extent, it creates the condition for people to kind of snap out of that particular desire and move to a, quote on quote, “higher desire?”
Kentaro: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. Again in the book, I talk about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is often misunderstood. It's often seen as purely about whatever is happening in your external environment. If you are given food, then you'll be satisfied with your food needs and so you move on to other needs. And of course that's true in the short term, but the other side of the hierarchy of needs is exactly what you were talking about, which is a kind of internal consciousness development. As you become more confident in your ability to satisfy those needs, whether or not those needs are immediately there or not, you are on a different level of consciousness. All of a sudden, those things become less important to you because you are confident that you can achieve them if you ever want to. That's why you can have hunger strikers, who obviously are not needing the lowest level of Maslow's hierarchy of physiological needs. But because they are so confident that they can get it if they ever need it, they are able to put it aside, for the sake of a much higher purpose.
Birju: With this as a backup, Maslow's hierarchy, consciousness development, to what extent do you feel that technological design can play a role in this development of virtues? What can technology do?
Kentaro: It's possible that it can accelerate this process. But I have to say technological design is largely orthogonal to consciousness development. In other words, with or without technology, I think people have gone through these prophecies. Some of the wisest people in the world were people who never grew up with any kind of technology are extremely that way. The problem with technology is that it amplifies as much our desire to grow as it does our desire to be complacent. It's very easy to distract yourself with a technology and do things that are in no way contributing to consciousness development, but meet other desires that we have as people. I think one of the big dangers is exactly the one that many people have feared about mass media all along. We are rapidly becoming a society, in which we're so busy entertaining ourselves that we don't have the time to think about consciousness development.
Birju: With that context, have you come across approaches out there that maybe not getting directly to the core of the kind of development that you are looking for, but on a spectrum, you said that they are actually worth watching and worth engaging with because to engage with them can accelerate the process?
Kentaro: Well, this is where it gets into stuff that's just not at all sexy, or interesting, and it's all boring. All the ideas that we need for consciousness development have been there for millennia. So for example, you mentioned meditation. Meditation is at least two millennia old if not three or four or five. And it requires no technology whatsoever. You just need a place to sit at best. That's a powerful way to help with consciousness development. Another one is just basic education. I think we don't understand or appreciate basic education for what it does with respect to consciousness development. We think of it as learning facts, and how to do arithmetic. But the reality is something about this formal process where you constantly challenging your mind and learning through a process of engaging with even potentially very boring memorization that, had you put in efforts, you are able to change your mind. Your own confidence in learning is huge for conscious development. So basic education is another powerful thing.
Then of course, the other one is person to person engagement, exactly the kind we are having, where by individuals, either intentionally or unintentionally, influence each other, and change the ways that we act. So all of these things are very basic, as old as human civilization, don't require any significant technology. I think they are in some ways even more important in a world, in which we are constantly immersed into technologies.
Birju: So I am curious putting myself in the shoes of the enablers. So the gentleman who is responsible for the technology, or the woman who is responsible for the technology of teleconference calls that allow for this conversation to happen, or the creator of this meditation app that I have mentioned, or the person who is creating props for the yoga studio to use, they are all able to say that, look, we are helping that kind of inner technology to happen. What are your thoughts on that kind of approach?
Kentaro: I think it's as good as it possibly goes. I think helping people who are trying to develop their own consciousness, giving them the tool to do it in a little bit better way, is definitely good. On the other hand, I do think it's very easy to get too overly fascinated with these things and for them it just becomes a distraction, and yet another reason why we are not focusing on the main thing. One of the things that I find very interesting is the degree, to which people who believe in meditation resist easy paths to the kind of cognitive skills that we are trying to develop through meditation. So for example, many people have mentioned how certain kinds of drugs, like LSD often achieves a similar degree of mental experience that some people gain through meditation. And yet I've never heard a genuine guru type of person suggests that we all take drugs, except for during the American 1960s, drug-taking was the way to enlightenment. But obviously, that didn't seem to work out. Any technology that really does help you with something, potentially also becomes the crutch, and what that means is that you are not able to accomplish that end without the crutch. I don't think there is anything wrong with having technology that serves as training wheels. But we also have to become good at recognizing that they are training wheels and eventually we have to do it without them. We want to be able to have all the gains of meditation without having to resort to some technology that supposedly helps you do better.
Birju: I am really touched by what you were saying because from what I am seeing, this is where the technology is headed. I was at this gathering that I went to just six weeks ago. I was in touch with individuals who are saying that we are at the baby stages of these enabling tools. If you believe in and subscribe to this idea that doing things faster and easier on this spiritual dimension makes sense, then what they talk about is utopia. So hearing things like phase three trials for compassion pill that has been talked about in Times magazine, or neuro-implants that help create non-dual experiences in people that at the push of a button, you experience what it means to not feel suffered. From one perspective being able to say, look, this is going to accelerate our spiritual transformation as a society. And I hear you saying, well, maybe not.
Kentaro: I have not read those articles. But those are very interesting ideas. Let's suppose that we could, at a touch of a button, cause a situation where everybody's brain is reconfigured such that they are effectively becoming compassionate people. What do we do (about) it? That is a very interesting philosophical question. I haven't thought this through enough to be able to say it. If it's a permanent change, it seems like "why not?" Maybe we should be working towards that. On the other hand, I think the real challenge of all these questions is who is in fact going to be in charge of the technology when it comes around, and who will be the one pushing the button. And how we are gonna come to that decision. So in some ways, they pre-suppose the same kind of questions that we have been asking all along, which is where we will make the right decisions about it when the time comes, because the reality is that if you have a technology that powerful, it could just be easily used to cause other changes in your mind. And maybe some of us will be left to make other choices. I think one of the hardest things about the kind of state of enlightenment that, in theory, meditation helps us achieve is that many of us don't want it. If we want it so badly, we will do nothing other than meditation. I recognize it in myself. There was a time when I did some very intense zen practice for a while. One of the things that helped me realize that I was not ready to pursue it in that way was my soul interested in life. I realized that I had a far deeper aspiration that was not to spiritual development. It was to personal esteem. It wasn't gonna go away through meditation unless I had come to the conclusion otherwise.
Birju: I am going to pick what's most alive for me right now, which is redefining what technology can be. So one way to think about technology is that it has silicon attached to it. What about social technologies? Things that would invite a novel social architecture like a wisdom circle, or a way of communicating that they shift how we think. How would you think about that from a technological standpoint?
Kentaro: There are various ways defining technology. If you go in the direction that you are suggesting, which is to call certain forms of social organization technology, which makes perfect sense, economists define it that way, then I think we are talking about something very different though. For me, technology is something that's easily replicable and achieves a constant result each time it's used. I am not convinced that social technologies are really all that easily replicable. Even though I do think they may have a similar result each time they use. Or possibly even that's not true. For example, wisdom circle, that sounds great, and it probably will work every time you have a bunch of wise people coming together. But are we sure that those groups would end up discussing things in the same manner if they are composed of people who don't have the same ends in mind. In some sense, because we expect that they are replicable and have consistent results, what we are looking for in technology exactly is some shortcuts to the end goal. I think that desire for that shortcut is very understandable and very human, but as long as we are looking for a shortcut, I think, again, it distracts us from what it is ultimately a hard work but meaningful and required work. We do not need to say, by the way, that we shouldn't be setting up wisdom circles. But it will be an illusion to think that it's the circle that's doing the work. It will still be the people involved.
Nipun: I was wondering if you could share a little bit about your personal journey. You spoke a lot about your views on technology and virtue, but what was it in your personal life that prompted you to try to even align these things? For a lot of people, it doesn't even occur to them. What is your personal evolution that has been big influence for you, perhaps even a moment, where it became clear to you that this was a very significant thing to do?
Kentaro: I don't know if there is any one thing. One thing that's kind of always been a theme in my life is just this very conscious attempt to become better at things. Initially, those things were kind of very tactical, instrumental, and achievement-oriented things. But over time, you began to see that those things have limits in terms of how interesting they are. If you are really interested in creating a better world, then there is something else you have to get better at, which is expression of compassion, empathy, and your capacity to do the things that you do. One other thing that I am very consciously aware of myself is, however much I think I am contributing to the world, the fact that I haven't given up a whole bunch of things that I really don't need in my life. I could easily do away 80% of my income and still lead a reasonable life. And yet it's very difficult for me to do that. And that suggests something internal that needs to change and is hard to change. If we can help cause exactly that kind of change in ourselves, as well as in other people, and the rest of the world, then the world itself becomes a better place.
Nipun: That's powerful. Just to be persistent on that, what was it that gave you that inclination? Or was it just an easier process, just saying, hey, compassion makes sense, consuming makes less sense? Did that idea of making sense, questioning and probing, just come up through all your life experiences? Or has there been some influence for you that has a value?
Kentaro: I don't know if there has been any single thing. I don't even know where these things come from. There is an argument to me why we should care whether other people are happy or not. It doesn't hurt us if they are not in an obviously direct way. You can make all kinds of arguments, of course, that everybody else eventually comes back to hurt you. Then you're still saying what you care about is yourself. I think the one logical way to think about this is the following, especially for those who practice meditation. The reality is that the universe only composes of individual incidents of consciousness, and each incidents of consciousness has some experience, and that experience can be pleasurable, can be painful, or can be neutral. But as long as you care about your own future experiences being positive and happy, then what you really are saying is that you want to make more of those experiences positive and happy. And the weird thing is that the present you have no way experiencing future happiness that latter version of you is gonna feel. So if you care about this other person, this other person's future, and their happiness, and really you ought to care about anybody else's happiness in the same way. That is in some way the recognition that people who practice meditation see so clearly that it becomes to obvious that it doesn't require intellectual thought process to understand it.
(Nipun: (paraphrasing) Lynn Laurence online asked who your heroes were.)
Kentaro: Again, I grew up thinking I was going to be a scientist or a technologist. So there are certainly heroes in technology. There are people like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and people who made incredible contributions in technology. There is some part of me that still admires them greatly for what they have done, but as real human changes concerned, I think those heroes have nothing to do with technology. They are Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and so on. So I think, at some level, this is my point in technology. It's not that technology is bad. It’s not that it's necessarily good. But it's completely perpendicular to the desire of making the world a better place. In some sense, whether the technology exists or not, we are left with the human battle to beat the forces of evil within ourself with the forces that are good. It’s entirely a human thing.
Nipun: In today’s technological fear of thought-leadership, are there others asking these kinds of questions moving away from technological utopian? There are a lot of singularity folks who think technology is gonna solve all the problems in the world. There are a couple of Jerry Leneal type of folks questioning some of these. Do you feel like there is a good constituency of people within the technology sector that are probing in this direction today?
Kentaro: The funny reality of this is that if you get the idea thoroughly enough, you will stop becoming a technology person, you'll stop defining yourself by technology. There are a number of people who are working on positive social end. They are doing a great job. They might use technology as a great tool. But those who are mostly serious about causing the kind of social changes that we are interested in, I don't believe they are. If you follow that idea to its limit, as hard as you can to achieve those changes, you'll eventually come to a place where it doesn't make a difference what the technology is.
Just to add on to that last question. About a century ago, we, as human civilizations, came up with automobiles. To be honest, in some ways, the combustion engine has been a far more impactful thing in human civilization than any digital technology. Because we have combustion engine, we can have the economy that we have, and people can get from one place to another. My guess is most of us would rather do without the Internet than without cars or any kind of motorized transport, as much as we think Internet is terrific. And yet, at that time, we didn't have these conversations about what we were thinking. Can we cause positive human changes with the combustion engine? Very mysterious in some ways that we would imagine somehow we have to have digital technology involved into the same kind of changes.
Kozo: Kentaro, this is Kozo from Cupertino. Thank you for inquiring into this phase of technology and higher consciousness. I want to bring up your ideas including Maslow's hierarchy of needs and at the top of it is self-actualization. I once heard him say that self-actualization is actually independence of opinions from others, detached from outcome, no investment in power and control of others, and seeing the unfolding of God in everyone they encounter. It seems to me in the west, in the first-world countries, we are pretty good at building the bottom of that pyramid. Nobody seems to be going for the top; nobody seems to be going for self-actualization. It seems very problematic that, in the West, aspirations are going towards consumption and outcome, the opinions of others. I am wondering how we can shift that so people are going for self-actualization. How can we shift to the aspiration going for self-actualization, which technology can amplify?
Kentaro: Thanks. That's a great question. In my book, one thing I did is that I adjusted this idea that the top of Maslow's hierarchy is self-actualization. Maslow himself could not really figure it out. Towards the end of his life, he kept trying to think about whether or not self-actualization should be split into two levels, one was self-actualization, and the second, he sometimes called, self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is ego-free aspirations, while self -actualization, I have come to believe, is actually incredibly selfish. It's the total ability for you to make yourself happy. It's not a bad thing. It's superseded by a desire to have a different impact on the world, to be aspired to help entities other than yourself. One thing about this idea of Maslow's hierarchy is that you can't really easily leap from one level to the other, at least internally. On one hand, you can easily provide food to people that satisfies their physiological needs very easily. There is an internal side to the Maslow's hierarchy, which in my book, I called it the hierarchy of aspirations. You can think of that as a longer term, what is it you want on a month-to-month basis, when assuming that your normal life with respect to other things like food and so on happens on a regular basis, in other words, when you are not in crisis mode as your regular life proceeds. What I discovered in my own life, I feel that I am strongly drawn by the esteem level of Maslow's hierarchy, but also self-actualization. They are still very selfish, and I am still chasing after selfish desires that I have. But one thing I have recognized is that as I achieve those desires and feel more comfortable in my ability to achieve them, they kind of vanish. I think the way to get more people to focus on self-transcendence is actually to help them achieve aspirations in front of them. So in a weird way, the way to help people less worried about esteem and security is actually to help them feel more secure and have more esteem. Not by just giving it to them, but by helping them get to a point where they feel they can achieve it on their own.
Kozo: Can I follow up on that? There is a counter to that, in which you have individuals, groups, other countries that are struggling for meeting those lower needs, but they jump straight to self-actualization. Masters, in countries where there is extreme poverty, like Gandhi, or a lot of the spiritual leaders, like Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), who actually go straight for self-transcendence without the ego piece. I am wondering if Maslow's hierarchy of needs is misleading the West. We should be following a different (path), call it a quantum leap straight to self-transcendence?
Kentaro: I think that's a very interesting point. What you are pointing out is exactly the difference between the internal hierarchy and the external one. So I am not, by any means, saying that somebody who is poor could not become self-transcendent. In fact, in many cases in history that happened. Whatever it was, in their genes, in their early life, possibly in their early upbringing, possibly through whatever other reasons, they arrived at a higher point in the hierarchy, intrinsically within themselves, than other people in the similar environment. One of the big questions is that is it possible to help people so they start off at a higher point in the hierarchy than otherwise. One of the most powerful ways is high quality education. There is no reason why, let's say, somebody who grows up in the United States middle class environment with a good education, and somebody, let's say, very poor in India, who grows up without that education. There is no reason why their lives couldn't be the same except that you could grow up in the United States with a decent family income, then are able to get a very good education, and a life so much free of constraints that very poor people face. And for whatever reason, that kind of environment allows you to grow up in a way, in which you actually are able to focus on higher needs, whether it's esteem, self-actualization, or transcendence. I want to make it clear that I am not saying that your external circumstances are your fate, they definitely are not, but there is something internal that we have to address.
That internal climb of the hierarchy is not very easy to jump. It’s very difficult to go from somebody, who cares very much about feeding their family and think of that as a primary desire in life, to suddenly becoming Gandhi. People like Gandhi, who were actually quite wealthy compared to their peers back home. Gandhi was in South Africa, a lawyer, which meant that he had an incredible education.
Mish: This is Mish in New York City. For me, technology has had a profound affect on my life. If it wasn’t for technology, I wouldn’t have connected to KindSpring with ServiceSpace, which in turn has transformed my life by raising my kindness, consciousness, and I see the effect the community has had on all the other members’ lives. The downside for me of technology is my overuse of it. Even from the downside it’s positive because I’m learning and observing, but I need impulse control, not to keep checking my messages, new posts on KindSpring, which is very hard for me not to do. It helps me develop discipline. Life is balance, between access and balance. For me, I only have gratitude for life changing changes from technologies. This is a really wonderful call. Thank you so much.
Nipun: On that point, Kentaro, if someone comes to you and says how do I find the happy balance between using technology and not being sucked into it, what would you say?
Kentaro: I would say anybody who is thinking about it will probably eventually get there. It's really that people who aren't thinking about those things are the challenges. How technology is good in your life, that is terrific, but one thing I do want to point out is that not everybody comes to the same conclusion as you did, even with access to the same technology. So the technology is the same, but the conclusions are different. It must be you who are already different even before you come in contact with technology. What I want to stress there is that even if in your life that technology has been the thing that changed you, as kind of a general way of seeing how that might be to other people, it’s not necessary the case that technology will have the same impact on others.
Nipun: Even without technology, maybe Mish would be just as kind a person…
Kentaro: I think that's also true. We often say I did this with technology and forgot that the previous generations did all those things without technology, or with a different technology.
Nipun: Yeah, it's a causation correlation problem. Beautiful.
Tom Mahon: (online) Kentaro, greetings. Thanks for your insights. My question is, in a consumer society constantly bombarded with ads to buy more. How can we market "the simple life of body, mind, and spirit,” and propagate this idea to a broader audience?
Kentaro: That's a good question. I notice that sometimes the magazines promote simple life. And yet they add another thing you can buy. The challenge with these things is that, on one hand, you can fight these things head on by trying to out-market other marketing attempts. But to a degree, it’s a little bit like fighting fire with fire. In some ways, the best thing we can do is to turn away from playing that game, and hope that other people see whatever we are doing as a welcome antidote to their otherwise advertisement filled lives. In many cases, it depends on the specific situations. So I hesitate to make blanket comments, but I do think that if I’m going to reduce consumption-oriented mindset, the best thing we can do is to avoid it, and to live by example.
Nipun: To switch topics a little bit, before this call, I was Googling you, and I saw that one of the big headlines around you is education and technology. You talked a little bit about the amplification before, and Birju talked a little about MOOCs. We had a retreat last weekend with 40 educators around raising and cultivating compassing quotient in students in education communities. Two women worked at a school, where every child gets a laptop and all their lectures coming from that laptop, and teachers cannot lecture for more than two minutes. They work very hard to make sure that the teachers are not lecturing at all, and in some sense, it's almost like they are trying to automate the teaching part. Maybe teachers will be taken over by robots soon, that kind of philosophy. The turnover rate is really high. The teachers are like this is not what I want in education. But you have this fascination in education with technology. In education, it's really critical because it's determining where we go in the future, if that's how kids are learning. And yet, you see things like MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, for those that don't know. That's like a big buzz. You hear about the success stories, but the completion rate for MOOCs is 4%. I know that you've spoken about in the media to lose this fascination with these massive open online courses. So my question to you, Kentaro, is that if someone asks you "how do you keep people in?" Is gamification the answer? Is it something else? Do we just go back to the basics, having technology be our servant, instead of having it be our master?
Kentaro: A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time at Lakeside High School in Seattle. This is a high school where Bill Gates went. Predictably there is a lot of technology there. All the kids are required to have a laptop. I think all of them have smart phones. They Tweet about athletic events. The teachers and the students communicate over emails, and so on. But even in that environment, a very high-end private school, where the student-teacher ratio is a very good 9 to 1, whenever parents want an extra boost with their kids, they pay for adult supervision. I was there because I was a substitute tutor for a friend of mine. I had these kids who were in a range of different capacities. Some of them were taking Honors Calculus, and knew more math than I did, but they just wanted somebody there as a sounding board. Some of them were struggling through algebra, and really needed direct instructional help. Some of them didn't need any actual help in math, but just wanted somebody to sit there and keep prompting them to do their homework.
The parents of these kids are executives at Amazon, Microsoft, and other technology companies in that area. So here are a set of parents, who in their day life evangelize technologies, probably some of whom even work on educational technologies, but when it comes to their own kids, they are very conscious that the thing that matters the most to their children, even when they have all these technologies, is high quality adult supervision. I don't think there is any way around that. The reasons why we turn it to technology is because we think that high quality adult supervision is too expensive. But it's a kind of collective neurosis that we are going to somehow avoid having to pay for good teachers, and use technology as a way to avoid that.
In the 60s, we actually went through a similar phase with television. There was a time when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson actually signed bills, in which a large amount of money went towards education by television. Today we probably think that's the craziest idea ever. By the same means, we all watch reality TV. Whatever the potential for television to deliver education was, the reality is very different. I think that we are now going through a similar phase with digital technologies. But we are not yet at the point where we look back and laugh at it.
Nipun: If you have to tease out what the adult supervision at Lakeside seems to provide what technology cannot do, what would you say?
Kentaro: The number one thing is motivation. As people, we are most motivated by other people. Good teachers know how to elicit that motivation in their students by hook or by crook, whether it's by scolding them, encouraging them, praising them, or pushing them. They do it in a way that keeps the child interested in an interactive way, and you establish a bond with the student. Because of that bond, the student is more likely to trust you. Technology, no matter how good, cannot provide anything like that motivation. You mentioned gamification earlier. I think that is actually a very interesting area, and we should continue to research and see if it results in anything. But the long term worry I have with gamification is the following. The reality is, when you become an adult, some of your productivity and capacity in doing your job is dependent on your ability to do boring things, and push through the boringness so that you can achieve those results, whether it's reading boring documents, or writing boring documents, or coding tedious parts of software. Imagine if all the schools are gamified, on one hand, those kids might very well end up learning a lot of math, science, and history that we want them to learn; on the other hand, we would have erased a generation of kids who've never had the chance to learn how to push themselves through boring material. We created a generation of kids, or people, who only know how to learn things if it's presented to them in a game format. I think it would be a dramatic disaster. On one hand, you succeed at the superficial mission of teaching facts, but you fail at the larger mission of education, which is to create self-motivated adults.
Nipun: That seems to me like a design principle. If you look at all the start-ups that are coming out in the tech space, a lot of their driving force is convenience. When you look at the whole sharing economy bubble, they just try to make things cheaper and more convenient for you to consume more, and more. Imagine going to a VC and saying, I got an app that helps you confront your weakness of running away from boring things. That's just not an exciting thing that anybody would pursue. And yet, that's a really important trait that we have to cultivate.
Kentaro: Right. That's why I keep coming back to virtue. It’s a mistake that we should be chasing after making life easier for everybody. What we want is to chase after the capacity for everybody to make a life better for themselves. And that capacity is a very different thing from the actual improvement.
Birju: Thank you, Nipun. Here is the question that I want to end our conversation on. Kentaro, these are the topics so close to the heart of this audience, and a broader audience that the ServiceSpace platform is meant to support and serve. From an audience’s perspective, how can we be at service to the work you are doing?
Kentaro: The best thing you can do is to get the word out. In the short term, my selfish goal is to get the book and these ideas many of you have talked about today out to an as wide audience as possible, to the extent that you find anything resinating with what I say. It would be great if you can pass the word along.
Birju: Beautiful. In terms of what I am gonna take away from this conversation, the point that you led off with this idea of heart, mind, and will, being really what we are looking to develop the intention, the judgement, and the self-control, I had a quote coming to mind from Howard Thurman, "Don't ask what the world needs, but do what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Nipun: More than anything, it raises more questions than it provides answers. That's a sign of a great call. Thank you all for being here, for Kentaro holding onto these very difficult ideas, and yet very much needed in our world today.
Kentaro: Thanks to Nipun and Birju, and everybody who joined the call. Thank you very much.