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Where Wisdom Meets Technology: Call with Tom Mahon

--Audrey Lin, on Feb 26, 2012

“What is an electron?”
 
That’s how it began. In the early 1980s, somewhat accidentally, longtime ServiceSpace friend Tom Mahon started writing about computers for local computer companies. Wanting to do a good job for his clients, he reasoned, “If I’m going to be writing about electronics, it would be good to know what an electron is.”
 
So he started asking engineers. Lots of them. And then was directed to physicists, who brought him to a theologian. Which made him realize that he’s not crazy. Though it was the early 1980s, and no one was asking these questions, Tom knew he was getting at something of substance.
 
Today, there is a growing field around it.

On a lifetime quest to raise these questions of wisdom and technology -- or as he would say, “reintegrating tech-knowledge with self-knowledge” -- Tom shared insights from the journey on our Forest Call this Saturday. (Which also happened to be his birthday. :) Throughout the discussion, it became apparent that he’s got an eye for the bigger picture and rhythms of life. And an earnest care to make these age-old rhythms relevant to our technological world today.

Listen to the Audio (mp3):    
(Click play button above to start the audio.)


Some highlights:


The Evolution of Technology
“In the ancient world, people understood that science was the way we could discover truth. In the classical world, 2500 years ago, the pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness was seen to be the mark of a wise life. And science and technology were seen as the means to those ends, but just the means. They were not the ends in themselves. What we’ve done now is made science and technology the ends in themselves. If you can imagine a high-tech CEO or an academic or anybody in an influential position say they were doing their work in the pursuit of beauty truth and goodness, they’d probably very soon be in pursuit of a new job. We leave these issues completely separate. In fact, we’ve changed our thinking from science and technology away from being means to noble ends to being ends in themselves. …I think we really need to stop and re-think the nature of science and technology.”
 
The Four P’s
Over the years, Tom’s questions have pulled together four things we can do to keep technology human.
 
1. Pause from the tsunami of information we get everyday. Take a day of Sabbath, whether it’s unplugging at a certain time each day or literally on the seventh day of the week. In the process, we might just notice patterns of interconnectedness, like this beautiful experience he shared:
 

One day I was sitting looking out the window, and I watched the wind blowing through the grass. And I realized, this is residue of the Big Bang. The grass is energy that became matter. And the wind is still the energy floating through the sky. And the interaction of wind on grass is a signature—a fingerprint—of the big bang. And it’s all connected. John Muir once said, “I thought if I touch anything in the world, it’s connected to everything in the universe.” Take any two of the most dichotomous things you can imagine. If you stop and think about it, they’re connected probably with only a few degrees of separation.
 
2. Pray or Meditate. These are tools that can bring us to a state of composure.
 
3. Practice the Golden Mean. Find a “Middle Way” between a life of too much and not enough.
 
4. Participate in the Golden Rule. There’s the Silver Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. And then there’s the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would like them to do to you.
 
A Brush with Death …and its Lessons
Last summer, Tom spent 6 weeks unconscious in the hospital. Body systems shut down. He had a mini-stroke. His surgeon informed him that he was close to passing over on several occasions. In a powerful reflection, he shared how his glass that was one half empty became half full. How anger dissolved upon waking up and seeing himself among the broken bodies in the intensive care unit. And how he was left with an overwhelming sense of compassion:
 
“If you want to see the face of God, if you can’t find it in the face of a stranger, there’s probably something wrong with the way you’re searching. And then, against my better judgment, I said No, it’s even more than that. We have to look for the face of God in our enemy. And that was a hard thing for me to swallow. But I realized that’s what all the old-timers were saying.  And man, that’s an epiphany. When you realize it’s not us against them anymore.”
 
The Imaginary Book of Knowledge
When asked what he would say to high schoolers, Tom replied, “You’re being taught a lot, and that’s good. But as much as you’re being taught, you’re being taught by the past.”
 
He then went on to share:
 
I had a teacher in 6th grade who was the best teacher I ever had. She opened the class by opening up an Imaginary Book of Knowledge. And she flipped to the imaginary first pages of the book, and said, “This is filled with information. And you’re going to have to learn it in my class and going forward.”
 
But now she said, “Now flip to the back pages of this Imaginary Book of Knowledge. The pages are blank. And you need to start thinking now, at 12 or 14, what you’re going to put on those pages when the time comes. And you’re going to have to give it a lot of thought. Because the people who come after you, that you can’t even imagine yet, are going to look to you for guidance.”
 
I think that was the best thing I ever learned in school. What are we going to put in the back of the book? And start thinking about that now. 
      
At the end of the call, we closed with a minute of silence. Then sang a round of "Happy Birthday," complete with phone and skype delays. After hanging up and reflecting on the laughter, insights, and questions that had been exchanged, I couldn't help but smile. It was another inspiring morning/afternoon/evening connection across the globe. Where technology met wisdom. :) 


‚ÄčTom has been a futurist, novelist, merchant-sailor, filmmaker, glass artisan, and public relations consultant for technology companies in Silicon Valley. His writings have been covered in the NY Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. More about him and his latest book on his website.