From the land of high tech comes a human connection
Silicon Valley tries to bring humanity to an increasingly technical
SAN FRANCISCO — Launched this month within the vast sea of the Internet is a droplet of a Web site.
It is not noteworthy for its graphics or its audio and video capabilities. Nor is it going to make anyone rich. In fact, there's not a single advertisement on the site and there are no plans for a public stock offering.
But reconnecting.com represents a growing restlessness within Silicon Valley about the direction of the very technology revolution it is creating. Some are convinced a nascent rebellion is afoot, though it is one most likely to play out quietly, in living rooms, churches, classrooms, and routine social settings.
Essentially, the issue percolating here is how to preserve humanistic, even spiritual, values within a world seemingly ever more reliant on machines, albeit incredibly sophisticated ones.
Reconnecting.com is a fledgling directory of resources for "people looking to live a human life in a high-tech world."
Founded by Tom Mahon, an author who has worked in Silicon Valley for many years, the site contains samples of his own essays as well as a recommended reading list of other relevant works, ranging from the "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," by Robert Pirsig, to Steven Hawking's "A Brief History of Time."
Mr. Mahon says his intent is not to offer advice, but to "start a larger dialogue that might work its way up the food chain for a larger social change."
Impact of technology
It is one of the few efforts to probe the meaning and lasting value of Silicon Valley's transformation from a rural region once called the "valley of the heart's delight" to the global pacesetter in technology innovation.
Jim Koch is attempting to ask similar questions on the campus of Santa Clara University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. His Center for Science, Technology, and Society was founded 18 months ago to explore the impact of technology on the quality of life.
"The issue that I see centers around people beginning to define themselves in terms of a technology ethos," says Mr. Koch.
Specifically, that means a society increasingly obsessed with "the creation of wealth, as opposed to the creation of value," as he puts it.
You won't find many enemies of technology in Silicon Valley, or even in the less-networked world beyond, Koch says. He routinely hosts delegations from foreign countries seeking to emulate the valley's formula for success.
Rather, the question being asked by some is what values and ethics are being forged in this relatively new industry, for its workers and for the world that buys and dances to the tune of the products it pumps out.
As Mahon sees it, the industry is built on the premise that faster is better, a notion that not only grinds up some employees, but churns out "buggy" products that frustrate consumers and sets an ever faster tempo for society as a whole. "We can make things faster, better, cheaper, and cooler, but more and more people are asking: Where are we going in such a hurry?" he asks.
Beyond issues of a seemingly accelerated pace of life, others see technology as both a help and hindrance to humanity's spiritual yearnings.
"There really are people who believe a man in a white coat will have the answers," says Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk based in Berkeley, Calif.
Mr. Sure says technology can be embraced as simply a more rapid means of bringing "ancient wisdom to modern folks." But it carries the risk that as it dominates human activities, it can foster a myth that it is a source of answers, rather than just a tool.
Ironically, Sure says many immigrants that have come to Silicon Valley, like those from India, have managed to maintain religious and community activities better than longtime residents.
Technology's use and meaning often cut across class, ethnic, and generational lines, and Sure is particularly hopeful that younger users, reared on computers, will be more likely to make them tools of their own devices.
This is a generation, says Sure, that is suspicious of most institutions, including religion. But computers offer the possibility of building new communities and a new sense of connectedness that could replace the institutions of their parents.
One ambition of reconnecting.com is to build an organization called Engineers without Frontiers, patterned after the French humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.
The new group seeks to enlist engineers to donate their time to helping wire, equip, and train poorer communities with modern technology.
Sure says that idea has had particular resonance with young people he has come across when he speaks to technology groups.
"I think there is a hunger that religion is not feeding, that entertainment is not feeding, that TV is not feeding," says Sure. "People are hungering for technology to be more connected to the heart, more in service of the heart."
Koch sees a similar searching that he says is "not a groundswell but could become one." He worries that the dazzling capabilities of technology can lead some to diminish the worth of humans.
Having recently heard some colleagues on campus dismissively describe the brain as "just a wet computer," he says with some annoyance, "we are certainly more than a wet computer."