Why doing what you’re good at, might be friggin’ dangerous — for you and the planet
It took me over 12 years to quit a job, that I knew all along I had to eventually quit. When I was still working fulltime as an academic, I knew, deep down, that I actually wanted to write more creative types of books and articles about free-chosen topics that mattered to me, in understandable words and sweeping narratives. Instead, I stuck for over a decade with the academic discourse — in my opinion, a rather rigid style and remarkably hard to understand for the laypeople I was hoping to reach with my gained knowledge. Despite of my frustrations, it took me over a decade to finally quit. The reason that it took me so long was that I was good at being an academic. I had a talent for data collection, even for writing in posh-journal-style. And talents, I had learned as a child, was something to be proud of, to cherish and to use. Something you don’t toss, neglect or forget about. That lesson, I recognize as an adult, is as popular in our modern culture, as it is untrue. More than that, the lesson to do what you’re good at can be dangerous — for one’s personal wellbeing, and even for the future of our world.
Many of our human species are, for example, extremely good at creating new technology. All over the world, at this very moment, there are thousands of extremely talented and smart people working on the one thing that they are extremely good at: developing ever faster algorithms, artificial intelligence, spreading the Internet of things and designing robots.
They do so because they are good at it and because their bosses pay them well for it. They likely also do it because they have learned to stick with talents that they were gifted with. This acquired lesson is constantly triggered in tech-companies. If a group of engineers can’t solve a problem yet, this is presented as a challenge for the company or field, to be overcome by the talented inhabitants of Silicon Valley and their sister-regions. Competition is harsh. The one who solves a problem first, gets the praise and the price. And so the engineers move on. And on. And on. With grand success.
Thanks to their amazing talents, there now exist self-driving cars, engineered babies, systems that can learn new behaviour after they come into existence by interacting with humans, robots that can grow back parts of themselves after these were removed, and systems that can find their own ‘on’ and ‘off buttons. That all sounds very exciting and promising — and it is! However, increasingly, futurists and other experts have warned for the unwanted, unprecedented and potentially harmful results of such rad inventions: what if one of the new inventions, in the nearby future is no longer controllable by humans, and learns to reproduce itself? What if DNA-engineering is used for a wrong cause?
Yes, we can
Yet the engineers diligently move on.
And we can’t blame them.
We live in a culture of can-do. We live in a culture where, if children don’t use their natural talent for mathematics but instead say they want to draw or read books or play outside, this would be regarded as a shame of their talents. We live in a culture where doctors are trained to save people’s life whenever they can, even if a certain procedure would not improve but arguably worsen somebody’s life condition.
But not all the things that we can do, we should do. There are consequences of some of our talent-inspired actions, that may be harmful for us or for the people around us. Being an academic gave me status and a fixed salary and seemingly matched what I was made for as a unique human being. But it wasn’t making me happy. ‘Saving’ a sick patient from death in order to make him live long but miserably, might harm him more that it saves him. And creating AI- systems that become faster, smarter and harder to control for us humans may showcase the human smartness of a segment of our society, but they might eventually also do severe damage to a much wider part of society.
The problem is that unlike me, people in many professions are not able, nor likely to stop themselves from doing what they are good at. In my case, my decision was relatively easy because it was a very personal one. I worked as an independent researcher and therefore, I was the only one to decide on my own career. Moreover, the decision was somewhat attractive because I wasn’t enjoying my job any longer. Still, it took me 12 years to counter the culture that taught me to cherish my talent.
In contrast, many of the current staff-members of our global technological workforce are not just enjoying the ways in which they can use their talent in their job; they also enjoy the endless opportunities that they are getting by the industries they work in, to overcome new challenges and explore unchartered fields.
And those industries will not stop providing their talents with new opportunities to prove their skills, because there is a lot of money to be earned here. Whoever builds a robot or an algorithm with more speed or capacities than its precedents, wins the media attention, the scientific subsidies, the best new employees and the richest investors. Clearly, one can imagine that these tech industries will thus not halt their own development.
No, we shouldn’t
One can also imagine that the employers of these industries will happily continue to use their talent to venture forwards. This means that a more careful approach towards the development of technology will not come from the insiders of those workfields.
Instead, it will have to come from us, the nontechies, the folks who may be good at writing and datacollecting, or at reading and playing theatre, or at drawing and climbing trees but who may not understand one bit of how a robot or an algorithm can be built. These types of people — you and me, that is — can and should seriously consider what the grand technologies, invented elsewhere, may mean for humanity.
We, the critics will not be preoccupied with what is possible and doable, but instead with what we want to become possible and doable. Likewise, by creating an ethical framework for which pathways we want technology to take, because it might support humanity along that route, will also enable us to recognize which pathways we prefer to be left aside. I am by no means saying that technological inventions are a bad thing; I cheer many of them, and recognize they are a part of the future. I do, however, believe that we should put as many talent and other resources into building an ethical framework around future tech, as we now do into building that future tech. And it is us; the nit-wits, the no-knows, who must do that, as the techy talents are occupied by doing what they are good at.
Roanne van Voorst is an anthropologist of the future (phD) and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been translated and is published internationally. Her current research centers on sustainable humanity, and the future of love, kindness and empathy. See for more information: www.roannevanvoorst.com or follow her on www.instagram.com/roannevanvoorst