Monday, January 11, 2010

technical solutions

Every solution is a technical one.  The way we bake a cake uses a certain series of steps and a certain set of equipment.  We can possibly find alternatives to either the process or the ingredients involved.  Alternatives might make better cakes, make them faster, make them cheaper, make cakes of higher quality.  We might get interested in certain properties of our cakes, such as their glycemic index ratings or their sweetness or how many eggs get included.  We might try to invent alternative steps or tools that change properties of interest.

As we modify our technical approach, very surprising things can happen.  Walking around with an iPod and headphones on, I am obviously less likely to hear what someone in the room says.  That might be a negative property of iPod use.  But then, finding that I am mobile and can also hear music that uplifts me, I may find I am a more cheerful person, from all that lifting up of my spirit.  The amount and direction of the goods and bads of a process will change over time.  Not being able to hear others in the room might be okay at first but then it might be a blessing or a curse.  The "valence" or algebraic positive or negative sign attached to a property or result changes as I age, as I learn, as I become accustomed to something, and simply as time goes on.

When I think of technical solutions and the ups and downs they give our lives, I think of the scenes in the powerful and memorable movie "The Mission", starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.  In the 1500's, the Spanish were founding a mission in South America and a pair of brothers, a soldier and a priest, are part of the group involved.  At one point, we see the tremendous labor used to move enormous cannon of great weight up cliffs to build a fort.  Watching the dangerous and strenuous work, we are tempted to think of it all as a waste of time.  Who needs a cannon in the jungle?  How Christian is a cannon, anyhow?

Good or bad, the later fight for dominance and the land between the natives and the army is no contest because gunpowder and cannons are a technical solution that overmatches arrows and spears.  When the natives try to adopt the same technical approach of building and using explosives, they find that they need mining and smelting and casting along with the concepts or the process doesn't work.

We engage in a difficult guessing game when we select technologies.  Are pistols an asset or a danger or both?  Do all those labor-saving devices save labor?  When we are lugging one to a repairman or considering a new mixer, we can doubt the value of electricity or gasoline.  When we fear for the earth's climate and the richness of our soil, we can doubt the value of our way of life.  On the other hand, an outside temperature of 12° makes me glad for our roof and walls and windows and furnace.

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