Beyond the Digital Abyss: Renewing Our Humanity, Empathy and Judgment

Deference to technology over humanity,

empathy, and judgment is its own banality of evil.

Don Olcott, Jr.

If you haven’t heard the news on the BBC or CNN, civilisation as we know seems to be coming to an end.  No, it’s not due to the pandemic Covid-19, it’s not our dependency on World Cup football or our personal quest to find our true selves amidst the uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity of modern society. It is none of these. The latest Ship of Doom is reporting that digital technology and artificial intelligence are covertly taking over the world . . . or so the story goes.  

Indeed, once again perhaps the futurists have got it wrong.  The real truth is neither technology nor a global coup underway by IR4.0 and AI is to blame.  The real culprit is us.  We have lost our humanity and abandoned the very best of human judgment.  We have ourselves to blame which also reveals a disturbing trend in recent years where assigning blame seems to have become a national pastime.  Perhaps it makes some people feel powerful whilst politicians and activists find it is necessary to CYA.  Regardless of the issue or context, we seem to find comfort in the blame game.   It is very difficult to reconcile empathy and blame as natural dance partners.

Without question, whether we talk of AI or the most innovative uses of digital tools, they are not reasons for our loss of humanity and judgment.  In my view, there is something terribly amoral about abandoning one’s own judgment and, in fact, failing to recognise the most egregious elephant in the living room.  Machines are made by humans, they are used and tested by humans, they are programmed by humans, they create and they destroy because of humans. 

Conversely, this is not to suggest that dependency on technology or AI could not lead us farther away from humanity, empathy and good judgment.  And although the axiom that technology will submerge us in to the depths of Dante’s Inferno may appear a fallacy, we cannot underestimate the capacity of technology to have detrimental consequences if we don’t set the parameters for their use.  All over the world we are mystified with the reality that humanity and judgment have left the building. This deceptive abandonment of human judgment to AI and digital tools reminds one of the works of Hannah Arendt.  Deference to technology over humanity, empathy and judgment is its own ‘banality of evil’ by relinquishing one’s decisions and judgment to someone or something else.  As Arendt herself stated, it is the inability to think.   

Historians and now even educational technologists like to reference 20th century technology without noting that the catalytic mass technology revolution didn’t start with the Ford Model-T, the Titanic, computers and IBM, it started with E = Mc2 and the gathering of the world’s best scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with one purpose and one purpose only – to develop the atomic bomb to destroy human beings.  Did you know that a few weeks before the initial test on 16 July 1945, the scientists at Los Alamos got ethical and moral cold feet?   They circulated and signed a petition that the bomb should be used first as a demonstration before it be used on actual Japanese cities. 

Once again, like modern society talking about educational technology or AI, these scientists had no sense of history – when was a weapon ever created for warfare that was never used – never in history.  We can’t blame this on Americans either – the group at Los Alamos was a multi-national group of scientists.     Interestingly, the mass acceleration of fiscal investments into higher education research globally began as a result of technology developments during WWII. 

The administrator of Los Alamos National Laboratories in 1942 and 2020 – the University of California at Berkeley.   Yes, they still research more advanced and efficient ways to kill millions of people with the Atomic Bomb and the Hydrogen Bomb.  And the decisions in 1945 as in 2020, are made by human beings, not AI nor digital tools.  We set the course of history ladies and gentlemen and these are our choices.

Indeed, somewhere along the path of progress we quit having serious dialogues about ethical, moral and human issues and decided there were none beyond our powers of resolution in one academic semester.  Many have abandoned their judgment and thrown in the towel because mistakenly they have been DoubleSpeaked to death believing technology is a better judge of complex issues, can make better decisions, and reflect sound judgment.  But this is not a technology issue, it is a human issue.  The world is not black and white, it is grey with various shades of interpretations; every problem has at least five good solutions and yes, sometimes the obvious most simple solution actually is right.

As an undergraduate I studied 20th century European history, specifically the period 1914 – 1955.  This came after four years of military service including playing Cold War games in West Germany and Berlin against the Soviets in the 1970s.    I was always enthralled by this historical period perhaps because it set on course the life of the planet for the remainder of the century.  To this day I still find the Holocaust very disconcerting to me for reasons beyond this expose.  Yes, Mr. Iriving, The Holocaust did happen.   I have watched all the documentaries and series, all the films, read the major books on the topic and thought I understood.  I learned with humility that education and experience are not the same thing.  Experience can be a harsh teacher.   

In 2009 I arrived (after an EDEN conference in Gdansk, Poland) in Kraków by air and then by bus in Oświęcim; the German translation is Auschwitz.  It was then and only then that I truly understood the magnitude of The Holocaust.  I had been to concentration camps before – Dachau, Buchenwald, etc., but this was different. 

This was the ultimate ground zero of lost humanity, empathy and judgment. Technology played its part by facilitating the systematic murder of human beings; but the decision to do so was made by intelligent, well educated, and cultured human beings.  I left that day with the lesson that pure evil has no country nor passport.  The truth is some people are evil, and they can become a catalyst for the most terrible crimes against humanity on our planet. This is not a German story.  It is a human story and again – pure evil has no country.

Our histories and our vantage points of these histories influence how we interpret and how we write about these kinds of things even when we convince ourselves we are not really talking about national cultural or social history when we speak of technology and education . . . of course we are.

A few years ago, North American college students were surveyed and asked what side America was on in the Vietnam Conflict – the majority answered North Vietnam.  74% did not know what Apartheid was or where it emanated. The percentage of those who thought more than one gunman was involved in the assassination of JFK had risen to 68%.  33% thought Elvis was still alive.  It is frightening to think that if we told young people that AI and digital technologies can make better decisions and demonstrate better judgment than human beings, do you think they would believe us?  Perhaps stated another way, can you convince me they wouldn’t believe us? 

In the final analysis, the cold hard truth is the challenges of 2020 are about us, they are not about technology.  We have more information and knowledge today than at any time in human history and our leadership, decision making, ethics, morality, and judgment seem to have gotten worse.  Someone has to write me an essay and explain this reality.    If A. I. is the guilty party, it’s AI of the human kind.

Norman Manea, a prominent Romanian author, wrote a few years ago that we need to get back as a human race to the place of doing what is right, embracing empathy and humanity and practicing sound judgment.  Manea suffered greatly during WWII, survived forty years under Communism and the Securitate, and finally leaving in 1986 for New York City. He returned in 1997 and his book ‘The Hooligan’s Return’ describes his life and return to Romania.  Manea’s story reminded me of another historical figure who personified doing what was right – Harry S. Truman

We worry about f2f versus online and whether humanity will survive this. In his seven years as president, Harry Truman faced more monumental leadership decisions than any leader in human history. He made the decision to use the Atomic Bomb on Japan; committed America to the Nuremberg Trials; recognised Israel with the threat of George C. Marshall resigning as Secretary of State (Marshall did resign); desegregated the U.S. armed forces; carried out the Berlin Blockade airlift; committed America to the Korean War; and fired General Douglas MacArthur who wanted to take troops in to China and risk nuclear war. 

This is just a small sample of what Truman faced as a leader.  And through it all, he would respond ‘I did what I thought was right.’ 

When he left office, he was the lowest ranked president in American history.  Eisenhower was elected, he was vastly popular because he led the Allies in WWII Europe but he was an average-mediocre president. Today, in every major poll – Truman is often ranked above Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and others.  Harry S. Truman just might have been America’s greatest president.

The story of Harry S Truman is not an American narrative.  To the contrary, his story is a leadership narrative. It is a human story.  It is a story of all nations and all peoples.   We must relearn to trust our own judgment, to employ technologies and other digital tools because of the wisdom of our judgment, not technology for technology’s sake.  And yes, we need to embrace a renewed empathy towards our colleagues, our students, and our fellow human beings.  This is the true path to improving the human condition.  We must never forget in all human endeavours, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.’ (Edmund Burke/John Stuart Mill).  

In retrospect we all want to look back with the belief that we did what we thought was right. Technology or AI will never do this for us.  If they do, then the demise of our civilisation is assured.  Technology is not our adversary.  AI is not our nemesis.    We can aptly play those roles ourselves, however, I am confident that humanity, empathy and judgment will prevail, and we won’t end up in Dante’s Inferno.

Supporting References

Burns, J. M.  (1978).  Leadership.  New York:  Harper and Row.

Lee, H.  (1960). To kill a mockingbird.  New York:  HarperCollins.

Manea, N. (2003).  The hooligan’s return:  A memoir.  Yale University Press.

McCullough, D.  (1992). Truman.  New York:  Simon & Shuster.