Happiness and Technological Advances: Where are we heading?

(To appear in IETE Technical Review, Nov-Dec 2017 issue.)

Advances in technology have reinforced our belief that being comfortable, secure and rich make us happy which in turn means seeking as much pleasure with as little pain. The craving for pleasure and the aversion against pain is what makes matters worse. Let us look at some examples.

Today many think that the misery in the world is due to imperfect people i.e. some people are hardworking, healthy, law-abiding and virtuous and the others are the opposite and create problems in human societies. Instead of rectifying the flawed societal structures created by these inferior men, some might argue why not we replace the imperfect men by better ones with “desirable” traits, using for example genetic engineering. This perhaps will address the root cause of the problems to establish a better world.

As most of you know, what makes life precious for us is the reality that we are all mortals. However, new medical advances may let us live for longer than what we can do now. Audacious it may sound but a day is not too far off when artificial intelligence enabled robots do experiments, analyse the results and write a research paper. The cup you use for drinking coffee may record your taste and time preferences and store in a cloud computer. Our brain functions through electrical signals. With progress in neuroengineering, if we can tap these signals, our thoughts can control external devices with dexterity and delicate control. Outsourcing our intellectual and physical activities to an intelligent machine may just be a thought away.

We are too well aware that many technological tools, which are part of our lives, are software driven. Only less than one per-cent of global population can write software programs. More important, only a small fraction of human population develops different technologies with a profound effect on the rest of human society. The pace at which a few experts develop these new technologies and thrust into our lives hardly provides any opportunity for us to decide whether it is a desirable technology or not. This fast-paced technology driven life may lead us to a sense of well-being since it satisfies our bodily needs and leads to good feelings even if it is transitory.

In my childhood, I used to hear from my grandmother how difficult it was to travel from her village in Andhra Pradesh to Varanasi for a dip in holy Ganga. The family members were not sure if the person heading to Varanasi would ever return. The journey was treacherous and months long. If flying from a distant place to Varanasi was an available option, they would have been very happy. But today, we take all means of modern commuting for granted. It does not give us the same happiness and excitement that a person few centuries ago would have felt. This may not be all that surprising – after all, the thrill of possessing a telephone few decades ago has vanished now. Soon we get used to this new comfort zone and our excitement of being subjectively well decays exponentially driving us to look for another technological innovation to make us happy. Will this never-ending chase for newness and to master the world around us through technological advances lead us to happiness?

As newer technologies evolve, it seems that we are overemphasizing personal autonomy and control i.e. our ability to decide and pursue a course of action without any consideration for how it affects people and world around us. As our modern lives increasingly become too self-centered and selfish so does our sole focus on fulfilling our personal desires even if it is at odds with the well-being of others. This self-centeredness often leads to unhappiness since persistent thoughts of competition, aggression, envy, rage and hostility burden our minds. But how to get around it?  What will encourage people to improve their quality of life and be happy while their standard of living is subjectively better off as they sop up contemporary technologies?

Let us look at some alternative views on happiness. In India and in many other eastern cultures, people worship nature and they abhor the idea of conquering nature because they believe that humans are only a speck in the cosmos. Indian philosophers believed that one finds happiness within oneself when the individual is unattached to the external world. Hindu world view is that human actions should not alter the universal cosmic order. Hinduism assumes this world to be a harmonious system of living and non-living beings and it is essential to maintain this harmony. Buddhism advocates that our inability to integrate self with non-self is the cause of personal desires and selfishness. Sufi thinkers have pointed to the need of bringing a balance between the individual’s existence and the whole cosmos. To attain happiness, Confucianism exhorts on the need to include others such as family members, friends and beyond by dismantling the boundary of individuated self through self-discipline. Aristotle, too, argued that happiness arises through reason and not by an influence of external factors. It seems pretty straightforward from these philosophies that self-lessness and harmony alone will give us a meaning for our existence and the ultimate happiness.

Finally, at a time when there is a pressing need for building peaceful, sustainable and inclusive human societies, perhaps it is time for us in universities and higher educational institutes to remind and relook into the notions of happiness. It all begs the question: does happiness come through an emphasis on personal autonomy and technological innovations to master and control nature? Or is it a result of focussing on achieving a balance between self and the rest of the world so that we do not turn into pleasure seeking human animals but into those with a sense of sharing, love, compassion, empathy, relational care and respect to others.

Let me end by citing what Dalai Lama has said: ‘‘The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of happiness becomes’’.

Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is a Professor (on-lien) at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India. He is the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is the Editor-in-Chief of IETE Technical Review and an Editor of IEEE Journal of the Electron Devices Society.  He was an Editor of IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices from 2006 to 2015. He is a member of University Grants Commission and member (PT) of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. He has widely published in the area of Micro/Nanoelectronics and is known for his excellence in teaching.  More details about Dr. Kumar can be found at http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala

 

 

 

 

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