REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Veritas Forum inspires discourse

Participants ponder the roles of technology and religion today

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Professor Rosalind W. Picard (right), founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group and co-director of the Things That Think Consortium, responds to a statement by Professor Susan S. Silbey (left), a Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Veritas forum this past Friday in Kresge. The forum was designed around the question “Will technology save the world?” and also featured Professor George Barbastathis and Professor José Gómez-Márquez.
Elizabeth D’Arienzo—The Tech

Over 500 attendees congregated in Kresge Auditorium last Friday at 6 p.m. to ponder a single question: “Will Technology Save the World?”

The question was the feature of the fifth annual Veritas Forum, whose mission, according to its website, is to “engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.” As Kunle Adeyemo G said in his introduction, the basis for this year’s question was that, “Technology is shaping our world. But are we and technology heading where we want to be going?”

As advertised, four faculty members participated in the forum; two atheists — Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Susan S. Silbey and Professor of Mechanical Engineering George Barbastathis, and two Christians — Instructor for D-Lab (Health) José F. Gómez-Márquez and Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Rosalind W. Picard.

Ian H. Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, moderated the discussion. The evening began with the four speakers each introducing their positions on the topic. Although the official question asked whether technology would save the world, the focus quickly shifted to whether it was possible for technology to do so.

Silbey started off by saying, “Technology cannot save the world because it is part of the problem.” Citing two types of change that technology affects in human society, Silbey questioned the ability of technology to effectively solve society’s problems. The first type of problem that technology poses to society is the immediate issues that arise with its necessary resources and waste, along with associated negative health effects. The other issue, Silbey said, deals with the ability of technology to change the way humans think and interact. She pointed out that technology affects the way we approach the world, including how we view the problems we face as a society, but itself lacks the proper methods to identify the problems that must be fixed. According to Silbey, the fundamental issue with technology is that “Technology cannot tell us what goals to pursue, what values we should promote through social action or technology.”

Gómez-Márquez took a different approach to the topic. Technology is a tool that people can use to better others’ lives, he believes, though he made it clear that technology can’t do the job by itself. Citing instances of where technology is used to help people in the developing world, Gómez-Márquez said, “I’m actually a technology optimist. What I find when we go down to the developing world where there is poverty is that it’s often not about the gadget. It’s actually a lot of other things that matter.” One of those “other things” he said, is insight. He noted that people need insight to develop new technologies, and said, “It’s less about the hardware and more about the intangible.” The intangible includes hope, which Gómez-Márquez said is especially important in poorer countries with fewer resources.

“It’s about the confidence of knowing that at a certain point, you don’t have all the answers,” he said, “and you have to rely upon something bigger yourself.” For Gómez-Márquez, that something is found in his Christian faith. He admits, “It’s really not about what I can do. It’s about what the God that I believe in can do through me.”

Barbastathis agreed that technology could help people, but that its benefits to society were decided by the choices that members of society made. He observed that many technologies can be both used for good and for evil, and posed the question, “How do you judge how you use technology?”

Barbastathis believes that the answer lies in the “decency [of humans] to decide what is good for each other provided we have some sort of basic covenant.” He explored the implications of sharing technology and scientific knowledge in light of this potential for either good or evil, and noted that hopefully through the sharing of information, those who are in it for good will always stay a step ahead of those who use it for harm. He concluded by stating, “I don’t know to what degree the world needs saving, but I think that technology can make it a better place.”

Picard opened her talk by asking, “What are the world’s hardest problems and what is the promise of technology to solve them?” Describing the benefits of autism research and the technology that has been developed to help autistic individuals, Picard noted that while the technology is good, it cannot cure people of autism. Picard then posed the question of whether curing people of autism was the best thing for them, noting that many patients that she speaks with ask not for a cure that will change who they are, but for a way to cope with their autism.

“We have to be very careful and humble when we think we know what is best,” Picard said, “especially when it involves other people.” Like the other speakers, Picard also discussed the potential benefits and harms that are possible through the use of technology. Even everyday technology such as cell phones can be used for both good and for great harm depending on who is using it.

So what do we look to in life? “I want to build great technology to help our world,” Picard said, “and I want to give of whatever I have to help people in need. I delight in this work.” But, she said, the meaning of life is in knowing a God whom she believes does have the answers and can save the world.

During the question and answer session that followed the talks, the panelists were asked, “We’ve all admitted to the limits of technology, and in that sense, perhaps technology will not save the world, where does our hope lie?” Barbastathis answered, “In ourselves,” while Gómez-Márquez said, “Beyond ourselves — in the Christian God.” Silbey commented, “In our youth,” and Picard concluded, “In our youth, in ourselves, but all of us informed by a God who knows more than we do and loves all the people in the world.”