Goals, Technology, “Avatar,” and Other Stuff

I’m a very goal-oriented person, to a fault: I work out five times a week, I study Chinese (though not lately) in my free time, I’ll be taking an online series of statistics courses in the Spring.  I even am in the midst of reading a 15 volume series on the history of China (I read about 20 pages a week and finish one volume a year.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the meaning of goals and, since this is a technology blog, I will try to tie some of that thinking in (eventually) to how we view technology.

There are at least two ways that I generally justify goal-setting to myself:

  1.  having goals is a way of establishing meaning.  In Candide, Voltaire writes that “man was born to live either in a state of distracting inquietude or of lethargic disgust.”  I look at setting goals as a way of holding meaningless at bay.  This idea resonates with me, perhaps, because there have been times in my life in which I have struggled with lethargic disgust.  I firmly choose distracting inquietude.
  2. I recently read the quotation (from Napoleon Hill) that “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”  This formulation allows me to justify my goal-setting in a more romantic perspective that resonates with my wife and, well, with the majority of people who are not quite as manic as I am.  I say that with humility (Can you tell?).

Last night, my wife and I finished watching the movie Avatar.  I hadn’t expected much from it, especially since we were watching it on the small-screen.  In fact, I found that the movie was quite effective in establishing a critique against materially-driven Western culture.  As I reflected about the movie, I have been thinking about the connection a material focus and a goal orientation.  I am sure that there are many ways to parse this argument, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but both materialism and goal-seeking depend on an expectation of progress derived through human action.

OK, on to technology.

My passion about the technology industry derives from technology’s role as one of the greatest drivers of change in the world.  For my own excitement, and ultimately, for my own survival, I want to be close to the action.  Further, I maintain the hope that, by participating in technological change, I can gain some insight about how to ensure that its impact is humane.  I realize that that hope may be quixotic, as technological development presents itself as a bucking leviathan.

All of this boils down to the question of whether technological advance is an essential part of being human or not.   That is, does technological advance derive from a  human choice or from an inherent human drive?  I know what the assumed answer is in our culture, and I know that many great writers have tackled this question but frankly, I haven’t read them, just about them.  The writers of Avatar would have us believe that technology is a choice the derives from the pursuit of technology.  Yes, you could strongly argue that the Na’vi were forced to adapt technologically, in terms of some weapon upgrades and new fighting techniques, in order to survive.  But the thrust of the film appears to make a different argument.

Since I can’t really resolve the question at the beginning of the last paragraph, I tend to view the two potential answers as a yin and yang of technological development.  Surely, under most circumstances, I don’t feel that there is much I can do to alter the course of technology.  In these yin moments, my job is to learn, absorb, and to be patient.  There are the rare moments when a number of factors align and, through my work, I can have some small impact on the course of the development of a product, or on the way in which it is used.  Those are the yang moments for which a person generally gets recognized in the professional workplace.

I also can’t say whether my participation in the tech industry implies that I am party towards creating a future of increasing “distracting inquietude.”  As I mentioned, that direction is existentially preferable to me than Voltaire’s “lethargic disgust,” so perhaps my bed is made, so to speak.  On the other hand, I like to think that the yin attitude of learning/patience/alertness that I bring to my engagement with technological products, contributes, in some small way, to the reflective capabilities of humankind as we continue to engage the awesome, terrible, fantastic technological beast.


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