Sunday, 10 March 2013

Make PCs not War

Philanthropy is fantastic-- whether you have gobs of money you could never spend in 20 lifetimes like the Gates Foundation or donate a few dollars within your budget like Albert Lexie did with his shoeshine tips-- giving to research, NGOs and projects that need support to do their work is swell. Furthermore, learning throughout our lifetime is awesome.  Be a tax attorney and also an expert on exotic fern species.  Learn a new language.  Teach one.  And certainly we should have more than one career.  Be in ad sales then get another degree and become an architect.  I support all these endeavors. But when titans of industry gingerly step into another line of titanry as though it was a lateral and completely natural move, this is where I draw the line.  Tiger Woods did not join the NBA because he reached his peak and got bored.

I recently listened to Google's former CEO, Eric Schmidt, explain his approach to conflict resolution at a 4-day seminar series at Cambridge University.  He talked about his trips to hotspots such as Libya, Pakistan, and North Korea, about the use of drones, cyber warfare, and the future of conflict.  He drew extensively from Stephen Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined which gives evidence about humanity's decreasing levels of violence and why our very sense that this is not the case, our sensitization to suffering, is part of that evidence that life has become increasingly precious.

The culmination of Schmidt's  observations seemed to be that he wanted to put his expertise to use in the field of conflict resolution.  It seemed to him, a trained engineer, that humanity should quite simply be working toward the goal of diminishing loss of life.
fewer deaths= winning
Who could argue with that, he asked? Throughout the four days, he had generously given nearly half his talk time each day to interact with the audience through questions.  He had deftly maneuvered a few barbs about corporate actions with politesse, and his lack of defensiveness had kept the debate environment open and inviting for both students and faculty.  He was clearly skilled in this format.  However, when the discussion on the last day circled around his central point, the foundation of his post-Google foray into world peace, he did not remain as cool.  The black and white simplicity of his claim wasn't sitting well with the room of academics, and one faculty member made reference to the history of philosophical debate around the issue of a just war.  Schmidt rebuked a rebuttal based on St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholic doctrine because he suspected it was coming from a non-Catholic and delivered without conviction.  He went on to challenge anyone in the audience to argue with his principle that humanity should have one basic goal of diminishing death. How could that not be good?  

Well, I'll tell you Mr.  Schmidt.  

First, Robert McNamara was also a fan of the engineering-based solution.  That mathematical strategy that makes the corners of your mouth curl up unconsciously bares a striking resemblance to the one discarded decades ago.  It lacked both nuance and consideration of context making it fantastically unsuccessful during the Vietnam War.  Those black and white numbers you find so familiar and appealing.....added up to disaster.

Second, for anyone who has interviewed victims of torture, rape, modern-day slavery... they describe an experience in which their suffering has been so extreme that they may not have wished for death, but it might have been a mercy.  We don't have to imagine a fate worse than death, for some tragically unlucky individuals, it exists.  However Schmidt liked to employ what he called 'thought experiments' or hypothetical narratives to make his point ... so imagine if we could do away with death in war as he aims to do and achieve a world where no one died, but instead the people who would have died become prisoners, slaves, and live a tortured miserable existence.  Would they have preferred a world where they could fight, where they could be free?  In this thought experiment,  I satisfied Schmidt's criteria, but is it really an upgrade?  Quality of life, context for why people are willing to fight to certain death even in a losing battle, pressures that motivate people to participate in violence all need to be part of this equation (and start by bending your mind to think outside the concrete, the strategy, the benchmarks, and so on... continuing to think like an engineer in a totally new field isn't very innovative Mr. Schmidt).

I trained as an engineer originally too.  I left because I found the solutions too neat and clean.  You build something to specification and you're finished.  Politics, conflict among humans is forever messy.  It can't be managed and refined like software.  The global, big-picture view glimpsed from the seat of a titan is reductionist at best, but potentially harmful if foreign affairs are the next venture for former CEOs.