Yuri Tarnopolsky
9. On Work

ethics. wisdom. human qualities. work. computers. machines.

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Essay 9. On Work

Even a brief look at the Contents of Montaigne’s Essays  tells us that, with all the striking variety of subjects, Montaigne was most of all preoccupied with human nature. Here is an alphabetic list of some selected topics:

action, affection, age, anger, conscience, constancy, cowardice, cruelty,  desire,
experience,  falseness, fear, friendship, glory, greatness, honesty, honor, idleness,
imagination, inequality, intentions, liars, liberty, moderation, passions, pedantry, profit, reason, sadness, solitude, soul, truth, uncertainty, vanity.

Since antiquity and up to the end of the nineteenth century, people perceived history as the result of individual behavior, and the individual behavior as the result of good or bad human qualities, right or wrong ideas, and true or false beliefs. Good results rewarded good qualities and bad results punished for bad qualities. This paradigm looks like a vicious circle because a quality is defined by its results, but as we know, even in physics the most fundamental concepts can be defined only in a circular way.

For a long time, an individual behavior of historical consequences has been attributed to the most visible figures at the top of the ladder of leadership, such as  king, emperor, general, Pope, bishop, ideological dissenter, chief mutineer, reformer, and, extrapolating to our times, president and Chairman of Federal Reserve Board. From one angle, they looked like the points of application of mysterious forces of history to the heavy solid bodies of faceless masses. If you push a book on the table crosswise at the corner, it will turn, but if you push it at the right angle to the middle of the side, it will slide. From another point of view, it was their will, knowledge, skills, and character that moved the massive figures on the historical chessboard against an equally determined opponent.

For centuries, history was all about humans, and the authors of antiquity were the first to push the frontier deeper into the jagged and tortured landscape of human nature.
The results of exploration, development, and cultivation of human nature were in public domain. The categories of  right and wrong, good and bad, true and false were valuable but essentially free tools. Wisdom was planted and harvested by philosophers and moralists and stocked up for everyday public use and for lean years.  Philosophy sifted through enormous loads of mental ore in search for nuggets of wisdom about good and bad, right and wrong, and how to turn one into the other, but every nugget dissolved in the crucible of critical analysis. Every statement was linked to its opposite like a pair of boots tied up with their shoelaces.

The world changed between the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Human life had to adapt to the life of machines and other human creations. Philosophy had little to say about the transparent and understandable in all minute details machines, and psychology had even less. Imagination? Passions? Glory? The machines of the late twenty-first century may have all that in the future, but today they are still quietly building up internal complexity and accumulating chaos, errors, and attitude problems beyond human control, waiting for the moment when they could jump out of the Microsoft Windows into the brotherly embrace of the schooled but still imperfect humans.

The consequence of complexity is such that the life cycle of an imperfect and annoying software is already shorter than the time needed for its perfection, and this built-in flaw is a deeply human feature from which all the philosophy of sorrow grew. So we are, humans, realizing our flaws only when there is no more time to correct them.

It seems to me that the gradual change and devaluation of humanism came with the Industrial Revolution, when people could see with their own eyes how the unknown in Biblical times machines worked, how their parts maintained an enviably coordinated movement, and, later, how the invisible in Biblical time living cells managed their spectacular molecular business. The scientific education limited the scope of categories of right and wrong to the area of logic. In the business practice, right was what increased profit and wealth. Wrong was what took it away. In politics, the right actions increased power and the wrong ones could cost life. A smoothly working system maintaining its order and not falling apart, was good, right, and beautiful whether it was alive or inanimate.

Right and wrong, therefore, became mostly pragmatic markers, like left and right, because whether a person was moral or immoral mattered less than the final result of the person's action. In the society of civil order and robust economy humans are evaluated like machines, by machines  checking crucial functional points, and for machines burying us under targeted ads.

I believe that all this is not to lament about but to accept as the acknowledgment that humans are not alone anymore on the reserved park bench of nature: they put their belongings next to themselves to fill up the entire length of the bench, and their personal effects cast strangely human little shadows.

What do we, millions of new kings of the universe, need to know in the new world with no Kings and no Prophets? What common language can we find with our Things so that we could listen to their guidance and resist their pushing us off the bench?

In the new world, which is very much old underneath, the categories of

system, chaos, order, energy, temperature, probability, complexity, structure, pattern

are the heirs of

true, false, right, wrong, good, bad, beautiful, ugly.

Human nature, with

action, affection, age, anger, conscience, constancy, cowardice, cruelty,  desire,
experience, falseness, fear, friendship, glory, greatness, honesty, honor, idleness,
imagination, inequality, intentions, liars, liberty, moderation, passions, pedantry,  profit, reason, sadness, solitude, soul, truth, uncertainty, vanity

joins the nature of Things with

aggregation, amplification, charge, concentration, diffusion, dispersion,  dissipation, dissolution, distribution, efficiency, entropy, fluctuation, fluidity, force, impact, influence, information, modulation, molecule, performance, radiation, reliability, replication, resistance, rotation, stability, synchronization, work.

It all started with work as moral category, equally applicable to humans and Things.                    

Page created: 2001                                                     Revised: 2016

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