Technology and wisdom

The digital age has transformed our lives in ways that would be unimaginable even a generation ago. But are all these changes necessarily for the better? Nikunj Dalal, professor of management science and information systems at Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University explores the issues and seeks readers' reactions in the first of a series of interactive columns

Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it. -- Stephen Hawking, speech at Zeitgist 2015

If Facebook were a country, it would today be the most populous on earth, larger than China or India. And Facebook is still rapidly growing, with a vision to make the Internet accessible to one billion people in India alone.

Technologies are revolutionizing our culture, our society, our business, our relationships, our politics, our entertainment, our education, and the way we think.

In India, we are witnessing the advent of a flurry of technological innovations in ecommerce, e-governance, mobile devices, smart cities, education, and agriculture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about his vision for Digital India in a speech in Silicon Valley in September 2015: ''It is an enterprise for India's transformation on a scale that is perhaps unmatched in human history. Not just to touch the lives of the weakest, farthest and the poorest citizen of India, but to change the way our nation will live and work.''

Clearly, the digital age offers transformative opportunities for individuals, organisations, and governments and it feels natural to be a technophile. The promise that technologies offer is undeniable – unfettered access to information, economic efficiencies, social conveniences, and incredible potential to change the world for the better. And the future seems increasingly rosier.

Or is it? Inventor, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in the future, biology and technology will begin to merge to create newer forms of life that combine machine and human intelligence, thereby actualizing the somewhat terrifying cyborgs of science fiction movies and novels. Whether or not robots take over, major advances will almost certainly further blur the distinction between human and technology.

Even if we do not dwell (for now) on concerns raised by driverless cars or intelligent robots or other scenarios of the future, there are critical questions we must ask of present-day technologies:  Are you constantly on your mobile phone? Do you feel the pressure to respond to your boss's email outside of work hours? Do you find yourself compulsively using Whatsapp or Facebook? Are you addicted to the internet? Are you a mindless consumer of technological entertainment delivered by the television or internet? How can parents enable children to use technologies wisely? Why do we feel more stressed and socially disconnected despite increasing technological connectivity (as reported by several studies)? How can organizations reduce technology-induced stresses and find ways to enable the mindful use of technologies?

Are we aware of the effects that technologies have upon us? Is it important that we as individuals, organizations, and societies ask such questions and conduct an inquiry? I believe we must. Nothing less than our future is at stake.

And we cannot afford to just look into issues superficially. An inquiry of depth should not be satisfied with merely surface solutions to complex problems posed by technological change. That would be like treating the symptoms of a disease while neglecting to understand the root cause.

A few years ago, I attended one of a rapidly-growing series of conferences called Wisdom 2.0, in San Francisco. This conference was sponsored by the likes of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other technology companies. According to their website,  ''Wisdom 2.0 addresses the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.''

The conference had several ''unconference'' features such as self-hosted tables by anyone who wanted to discuss a topic with likeminded folks. The conference included talks by US CEOs and politicians.  I met many interesting attendees (from among 1,800 people who showed up) and I came away with the feeling that many young and creative people have the greater good in mind.

Whether it is conferences such as Wisdom 2.0 or support from funding agencies such as the Templeton foundation for wisdom research at the University of Chicago  or growing interdisciplinary work on wisdom in fields as diverse as management, leadership, psychology, sociology, gerontology, biology, neurosciences, spirituality, health and medicine, there is evidence of great interest in drawing from all sources of wisdom including scientific knowledge, organizational practices, and the wisdom traditions to respond to modern individual, organizational, and societal challenges creatively, mindfully, and proactively.

Can we respond to technological questions with practical wisdom and increase awareness, deepen dialogue, find meaningful solutions, and help redesign a technology-driven future. What do you think?

A wise person remarked, ''It is the questions in life that move us forward, not the answers.'' What are the biggest challenges you have faced in relating with technologies and how are you responding to those challenges? In a spirit of inquiry, I invite your well-considered critical questions/responses and insightful comments on the role of current and emerging technologies in your work and personal lives. In future columns, I hope to explore some key issues from perspectives of practical wisdom. Readers are welcome to post comments below.