Posted by: Dirk | August 23, 2010

Man builds the machine, the machine changes the man

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, has recently voiced concerns about Generation Facebook at the Independent (which are appropriate to start the new category “Virtual Worlds“)

Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, has issued a stark warning over the amount of personal data people leave on the internet and suggested that many of them will be forced one day to change their names in order to escape their cyber past.

In a startling admission from a man whose company has made billions by perfecting the art of hoarding, storing and retrieving information on us, Mr Schmidt suggested that the enormous quantity of detail we leave online may not be such a good thing after all.

Let me answer these doubts with a quote from Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason from 1976:

Perhaps the computer, as well as many other of our machines and techniques, can yet be transformed, following our own authentically revolutionary transformation, into instruments to enable us to live harmoniously with nature and with one another. But one prerequisite will first have to be met: there must be another transformation of man. And it must be one that restores a balance between human knowledge, human aspirations, and an appreciation of human dignity such that man may become worthy of living in nature.

This was quite an insight considering it was written in 1976 and about the interactions of computers and “humans”. What I want to say by quoting this is that if everybody leaves picture and videos of oneself himself on the internet doing stupid things while being young, then, well, maybe the norm that “you shouldn’t do anything stupid while you are young and if you do so then hide it away” might be replaced by a norm that is informed by human character and be more like “everybody does stupid things, and what is important is to learn from mistakes in the past so that everything is fine in the future”.

Of course, our children will not be like us. Every generation has its norms, its culture, and its values. Think of the hippies and what they did. Many of those people now have nice jobs and are happy. Of course, some norms have changed, like from “do what you are told to do” to “think about how you would like to do and then do that”. Of course, I am generalizing here, but you surely get my point. The interactions of technologies and institutions – like norms – is what makes society dynamic and vibrant and … human.

(This is not to say that you shouldn’t read George Orwell’s 1984 – please do that!)

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