Balanced Technological Development

My wife and I went to The Seagull performed at the Royal Court Theater near Sloane Square last night- great show by the way.  In fact, it was the first time I really wanted to talk about a theater performance afterwards, but that’s a tangential topic to the thought at hand.  In the Tube on the way there, a thought hit me regarding balanced technological growth and development.  I think there is something fundamental to be found in it.

Imagine the critique of a city slicker who may know all the best restaurants in town, and is a pro with his iPod, but if he finds himself out in the wilderness without electricity he’s utterly lost.  He has no clue what to do.  All his skills and interests are completely non-applicable in the wilderness/survival situation.  Now, imagine if someon developed some insane EMP device that effectively knocks out all electronic equipment.  The tempatation is the say that we’d all be screwed because since the development of electricity and computers, we’ve largely lost our collective survival knowledge.

However, we all know someone who gets a kick out of survival knowledge and what to do in an emergency.  In such an emergency that person’s survival skills would be quite relevant, though outside of that emergency his skills would be, well, as useless as the programming skills of an uber geek in a no-computer world.

In each person’s case- the survivalist and the uber geek- his or her skills have been developed because that’s what interests them, what they are passionate about.

I think everyone has a limited supply of “brain processing power”, as it were, specifically referring to one’s ability to “juggle” only a limited number of bodies of knowledge.  A good portion of this capacity is taken up by basic day-to-day existence- eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, bills, etc.  The remaining capacity is then available for one’s interests and what amount to hobbies.  I think it’s this remaining capacity that allows us to differentiate ourselves from others.  Interestingly, given each person has a desire to be unique, this would imply in a sufficient population size, any body of knowledge will have at least one person interested in it.  Of course, cultural issues like taboos can screw this distribution, which would suggest some interesting lines of sociological study.

About cultural issues messing up the even distribution of a population’s knowledge, that’s exactly the point.  If we do anything but simply let people follow their interests and passions, we end up with holes in the collective knowledge base.  If we “encourage <insert topic> development” there will be some people who will spend their time in that direction who are really more interested in some other topic.  If we institute social programs to influence behavior, then there will be people who will spend their time doing things they are not as passionate about as they would be for something else.  And, since the best discoveries and contributions typically come from people who are immensely passionate for whatever it is they were doing at the time of the discovery, then there will be less discovery and development precisely because there are fewer people doing what they are immensely passionate for.

This all hinges on the notion that a person gets the most accomplished when they are working in an area about which they are very interested and passionate.  Going by Strengths Theory from Donald O. Clifton, a person’s passions will likely entail a physiological “brain wiring” optimization for that specific passion.  As a person’s brain develops, it consolidates information processing into a smaller and smaller set of neural pathway “T1 lines”, if you will, until there are somewhere around 5 of them that are used most often for moment-to-moment processing.  Clifton calls these “strengths” or “innate talents”, and their development is largely determined by negation- things like bad experiences, thoughts of “I don’t want to be like that”, etc.  These optimized neural pathways are the easiest routes through which that person’s brain can process information.  “Doing life” according to these strengths implies either less mental effort to get through the day or getting more done during the day.

Tying back into the balanced tech. development thing, with our strengths and interests being [largely] determined by what we don’t want, we are virtually guaranteed that there is at least one person out there who knows what is criticial given any significant setback.  Also, since many of the greatest advances are made when advanced knowldege in differing fields is synthesized, we should be encouraging every individual to follow their true interests and passions because the more people we have doing things they are truly excited about the more bodies of knowledge will be growing faster, and in the end the more huge discoveries we will see.

The kicker though is that we can’t mess with people’s interests.  If we do, by way of wars, social programs, and even national technological initiatives, we will simply be making an off-balance technological advance front.  In the end, the overall progress will be slower than if we had just left it alone.  Interestingly, this would judge the 60s Apollo program to have caused more harm than good, but since the Cold War was its impetus and the Cold War was more influential on social development, one’s critic of the Apollo program would have to be significantly tempered.

Of course, the “follow your passions” call must be accompanied by “don’t be a jerk” and “don’t hurt others”.

This is getting too long.  I’m sure I’ll write more about it some day.  I’d be interested in what anybody thinks.