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The alligator and the marshmallow

It was early November outside of New Orleans where I was sat on an airboat skimming across the swamplands at a breakneck speed. There was a dense fog in the air which left the swamp cooler than usual which meant we wouldn’t be seeing many gators. As we skimmed across a small clearing our engine calmed, eventually shutting down, as we finally approached what we all wanted to see, a few alligators. Our guide walked to the front of our small 8-person boat with a nondescript bag full of white things. They were marshmallows we all realized as he began to lob a few into the water surrounding our boat. Sure enough, a few moments later, we had two alligators in our midst, snacking on those marshmallows.

“Gators love them some marshmallows!” our guide quipped. Mesmerized I quickly tried to work out why marshmallows and more importantly who the hell figured this out? “You see, gators are colourblind and they don’t have a sense of smell so anything that’s white and can float they’ll eat! It’s because the bottom of fish are white.” Are you kidding me?!? This is unbelievable. These poor creatures are being sold marshmallows as fish and they have no way of finding out. It’s like the classic fish in a fish bowl argument, they just can’t know any better because it’s beyond their means to do so. This immediately got me thinking about another sales job that’s happening today. To me, it feels a lot like the human version of the gator and the marshmallow. This sales job is the benevolence of technology.

If you pay enough attention you’ll start to see that there is an interesting set of phenomenon emerging out of the increased scale of technological advances we have in our world. These phenomenon are pointing towards a collective of people that are transitioning their beliefs, hopes and salvations from the spiritual into the real, a technological real. Far from a utopia our view of this world view is one that feels totally disempowered from a human perspective, shifting the work that we need to do for our future onto technology. Global warming, geo-engineering. Shitty education, Khan Academy. Corrupt government, social networks. Not enough doctors, quantified self. No church on Sundays, TED videos on Mondays. Like the Gods of years past we are quickly moving towards a fundamentalism of a new kind, the export of responsibility onto technology as a benevolence force.

Why is this happening if it is? It starts with our dogged pursuit to deconstruct and trash anything that is faith in orientation. If there has been one massive casualty in our internet-fuelled information deluge it has been any sort of human-oriented

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faith. We swarm faith-oriented value descriptions with a Richard Dawkins like attack of argumentation, hyperlinks, reductionism and condescension that leaves us nothing but technology. As a result the void that is left by the destruction of the spiritual is fulfilled by a new kind of spiritualism that emerges out of the ashes and exists in the form of technologies. Advances in neuroscience, synthetic biology, physics, nano-sciences, genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and others all point towards hope. And we organize ourselves around this hope. TED conferences, shared videos, new universities promising a tech-enlightened future, news feeds littered with articles about new advances, communities emerging with DIY meetups that aim to re-engineer our biosphere. All are welcome, none are rejected. They place the benevolence of technology at its heart without really understanding how technology functions. It is becoming a marshmallow of the highest order!

Let’s be clear that I am not belittling the work that many people have done with technology. The issue that I am raising is one of concern that without understanding HOW technology functions in our world we will never be able to shape it in a way does help to solve our collective problems. The reality is that technology accelerates our root ideologies. It takes our values and beliefs, expresses them through its means, and shapes itself around them. Two quick examples are the automation of the production process and the digitization of the music industry. Both were instances where we expressed our shared societal values, the first chasing productivity of process the second chasing efficiencies in terms of delivery, and then we scaled and changed our worlds forever, both for the better and the worse. Is technology solely to blame (and take credit) here? Absolutely not. It was our inability to understand its function in expressing and scaling our root values that is. The single most consistent issue we faced at Singularity University with our projects were human issues, ones where there was a lack of shared values. This is where we need time and attention, not on outsourcing hope to a technology to solve our problems.

The prevailing winds in technology circles is that it can do no wrong which, in every sense of the word, just plain wrong. While Silicon Valley luminaries like Peter Thiel will tell you that the their version of education is the way forward, we normal people go about our days in class hoping that someday a technology will figure it all out. Worse yet we watch videos, share links, download apps, e-sign petitions all in hopes that this technology will come and save our souls. The truth is that having spent enough time in the technology-centered swamp most honest people will tell you that we’re all eating a bunch of marshmallows without a real fish anywhere in sight.

Image sourced from: http://now.msn.com/boat-captain-in-florida-gives-gator-a-hand-literally

 

 

  • jg114

    Do most alligators eat marshmallows? Consider taking a Pareto Distribution view of the world and look at the idea of the “adjacent possible”. http://slidespeech.com/s/8nyXIYIcen/

    • http://twitter.com/SashaG ɔıɔıɾnɹƃ ɐɥsɐs

      John … great to hear from you! And yes! Alligators will eat anything that is white because they think they are fish and marshmallows are cheap :)

      Nice slideshare on Pareto and am familiar with the adjacent possible from Stuart Kauffman and the Santa Fe Institute. I actually think understanding emergence is critical to identifying where we are going as a a society. The point i am trying to make is that we spend too much time looking at technology for answers rather than the “local rules” that manifest THROUGH technology. This is a critical distinction because folks like you in the Open Source movement are expressing a certain set of values through technology that are connecting and scaling. This cause effects on existing structures and has those adjacent possibilities with them. The challenge we face is around the incompatibility with the pace of technological acceleration and human adaptation.

      Anyway … thanks for reading, sharing your link and I hope you are well.

      S

  • switchgirl

    Just a note on Peter T.’s fellows. I lived with 2-4 of them in a house (it was a start-up house… get your mind out of the gutter). All amazing and bright young lads and all seemed a bit lost. Brilliant, but no social development skills and tons of pressure to shine in the spotlight. All of them focused on solving grand challenges and very few had any actual encounters with the people or groups they were having to help. They truly believe technology is the answer. None of them had a close mentor that I could see. Yes, a senior person would meet with them; but I saw nothing like a real home or a family or stable friendships. Without a close mentor or a stable environment; they had a difficult time coping. Some did drugs and others had and still do have severe depression. Another went off the deep end and became fascinated by the spiritual getting lost in the ideas in books instead of people. I am sure they would disagree; but even the brightest need something that is stable and to have the opportunity to put people, humanity, and spirituality first.