"What do we need?" Moral questions in relation to digital technology

"What do we need?" Moral questions in relation to digital technology

06 March 2024 410 views

by Laura Dias Porto

What do we need?

One problem we face while dealing with digital technology is the impact that it has on Earth. The materials we use to build devices, the energy source that charges them, and the workers' conditions to make this virtual environment run. From the ones that transform nature into our devices, passing through the people who make the software that runs in that hardware, to the ones that create the content that we interact with. Our impact in these virtual spaces starts before getting there.

Do we need all that paraphernalia? Do we need to give up on it?

What do we need it for?

I’ve studied marketing and my teachers repeatedly used to tell us that we could only work (or manipulate) desires, not necessities. Those were inherent and not accessible for managing market behavior. Thinking of it now, I agree and disagree at the same time.

After the February Days Conference, I realized that I needed to meditate more. Indeed, this feeling was already inside me as a necessity, not as something I was aware of or even convinced about since I was not dedicated to meditation: there are some things we might need even if we are not aware of the necessity.

Sometimes, when I don’t know the way to get somewhere, I can look at the GPS on my phone. On the other hand, I could look at a paper map, or try to remember the route in case I had already been there before. I normally have a hard time orienting myself, so I’m grateful that the GPS exists. However, I know that if I knew the impact on every person who works on it, or even on the natural resources explored to send the satellites up there, my relation with that need would be different. Maybe then, a paper map could be a better technology. Better for my moral judgment, not necessarily for my time management.

My moral judgment depends on my worldview, or in other words, depends on how I understand life and what we are doing here on this planet at this time. I believe I’m here to face today’s dilemmas, such as the impact of technology on earth, the impact of it on societies, or even the impact of these human creations (inspired by those who were available) on what we do not see, on our ideas, which inspire us and guide us into the future.

I stop at this moment in the text to express gratitude. I struggled with these questions for a long time, and it was refreshing to finally be at the February Days event, dedicated to understanding these issues and seeking directions. Thank you very much to each one of you who made it possible.

How to know what we truly need?

Did I need to cross the ocean to be in a 4-day conference? Now I think I did, but while packing or preparing myself for a workshop I was invited to offer, I was not so sure. I thought that the organizers were being crazy to let me talk that much. But it was great that they believed in me, and because of that workshop, I had the most incredible experience of seeing one idea being sculped by different people. But to get there, and be where I am now, I had to make the decision of going without knowing any of those things that I am now aware of.

The meaning of things can be more easily grasped from past events. When looking back, it becomes easier to know if something specific was actually needed or not. But decisions require impulses for the future. To discover what I need, I must look at what I have and where I want to go. What I have at this present moment is a lot of past, lots of things I have been accumulating, gaining, losing… But it’s only present in the sense that I don’t have what I've lost. Those things, ideas, and networks, that are present in me now, are the resources that can take me to the future.

What we need has an element of the unknown. As much as we plan, and prepare for our journey, there is always the possibility of something happening that we could not predict. I don’t know how the future will be. I didn’t expect to need to use my computer to attend my classes at university before the pandemic started. Then, I can say, my computer was needed more than ever. It was not on my plans when I bought that particular device; by then, my life was so different, I didn’t know what I would need some years ahead, and it worked without my awareness at the moment that I got to this decision.

Recently this same device gave signs that I should start looking for a replacement. I caught myself thinking about how my life would be in the next 5 to 10 years, what kind of computer I would need to be able to face my future, to work with the future that would then be present to me. I was making myself and my family crazy with these thoughts, but still, I don’t think now we can have this answer. I don’t think I know what I will need in the future.

There is another layer to this because, with some limitations, of course, we build our future. One friend came to me with a difficult situation, he forgot the umbrella at home and asked God not to expose him to the rain that day. The rain only started when he was just back home at the end of that day. He is a very methodical person, he likes to plan and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and with this situation, he had an internal struggle. In his words (translated by me): “If I prepare myself for war, it will happen, if I don’t, it will not. My nature is to prepare myself for it, but then, I will have to fight. Not that God is not with me, but if I let Him guide me, it becomes better and lighter.”

We need to trust.

If the idea of those things we need is not there, in our past or even in our present, for us to look at and be sure of what we need, so to make these decisions we need something else. Maybe look for images, inspirations, intuition. From the “Michael Verse for Our Time” written by Rudolf Steiner,[1] I’ve repeatedly told myself to “live out of pure trust, without any security in existence.” But like my friend, I have learned to prepare myself for challenging situations. It's hard to place what I need purely on trust. But the verse goes on, “...truly, nothing else will do If our courage is not to fail us.” We are asked so much of this courage if we are willing to be guided by this “world-directive full of wisdom”.

To finish by now, I would like to go back to where it all began. The conference and how I felt so strongly about facing digital technologies, and these human creations. I am not sure, but maybe this strength came from being together and being able to be so true to myself while being together. It is easier to have courage if I don’t feel like I am alone.

It’s especially difficult to trust in life in the economic sphere. The material goods that I need to keep living on this earth and working with the reality that presents to me, can be expensive. Especially if I am looking for products made by fairly paid people and with careful and thoughtful use of natural resources. Modern life is so complicated that It makes me need so much more than I can produce by myself. But again, I am not alone.

We live in this reality, shrouded by others, where each one of us brings a unique set of capabilities. If we work to bring them to the Earth, then we can have an efficient and beautiful division of labor. And then as mankind, we can make an economic life guided by an impulse towards brotherhood, and while getting there, I trust that we can count on each other to help us figure out what we really need.

by Laura Dias Porto

Workshop host

[1] I know this verse in Portuguese. I had to use some of it in English here, and that is the translation I found and used. https://www.sophiainstitute.us...