How to Use Technology To Make You More Aware And Alive


This article originally appeared in Issue# 23

The following is excerpted from the text of Dr. Byrne's remarks when he accepted the 1983 Media&Values Communicator Award

"I currently see the world divided into two camps, and they're not equal in size. There are people in the world who think that something is going on and people who don't.

The people who think something is going on call it the Communication Revolution or the Information Age or the Post-Industrial Society. They believe that computers are real and that they work, and that we ought to be using them to make life valuable.

The others don't believe any of that works, and that we shouldn't be doing it.

I'm quite amazed at who is in each camp. Many of the leaders in information technology are in the camp that believes nothing is going on. When you talk to them about the impact on human jives, on organizational change and on who works for whom and how, and how we can be empowered and how life can be more worthwhile and more interesting and more exciting, they say, "What are you talking about? You must be talking religion or something, but that's not what we do.'

I am way over in the camp called 'Something's Going On.' I usually demonstrate that with technology, but I don't think technology is what's going on..

"If you had a computer, you'd be just exactly what you are now and more so. So, if you're disorganized, wait until you get a computer! You will be disorganized at flank speed!

Some people say, 'Richard, how can you teach people to use computers and hold your head up? Because we're all going to sit home alone, and we'll be pasty white and we'll never talk to anyone.'

I say, 'Hey, maybe you. but not me. I am with more people now than I've ever been in my whole life, and largely it's because use computers.'

"Choose something you're wonderful at, whatever it is, and figure out how a computer can help you do it better."

If you're disorganized and you get a computer, you will become more disorganized. If you are organized, you will become more organized.

So my first tip is, before you use a computer, choose something you're wonderful at! Whatever you're wonderful at, get that in mind and figure out how a computer can help you do it. Do that one thing and nothing else for six months. Then if you decide to work on things you're terrible at, I give you my permission…"

"The technology is not the revolution. The revolution is in human awareness and aliveness. It is just made clearer by technology.

Most of you do not know how to use a computer. And most of you are willing to acknowledge that you do not know how to use a computer. But suppose you run a 50-million dollar corporation and people come to you and say, 'Well, is it going to work or not?' Can you say, 'I don't know?'

Do you see that 'I don't know' is an impossible response for most people in positions of power? They come from a position of 'surely I know something,' so whenever they are asked something, they start telling you what the answer is.. but the true answer is 'I don't know.'

True learning only occurs from a position called 'I Don't Know.'

"The astonishing thing is that many of the leaders in information technology are in the camp that believes nothing is going on."

There's a story of a person who comes from the United States to visit a Zen master and says, 'Teach me some Zen.' So the master takes tea and pours it in a cup until it overflows all over their robes, and out on the tatami mats, and into the streets until they are both sitting in this puddle of tea. And the Zen master says, 'This is how you have come to me, as a cup which is full. Nothing can be added to a cup which is full.'

So the reason I use computers is not because I think computers matter. Computers are the shill that I use to get people in the tent. Once they get inside the tent, then I get them to acknowledge that they're ignorant, and then they just laugh and relax and sit back.

And when they sit back and relax and acknowledge they don't know, then they can just soak it up like a sponge. They can learn.

I think the revolution is in the fact that we're in a position of not knowing. We cannot possibly know how this is going to turn out. That's why I'm so excited about it..

"This is the computer that I carry with me every day. It's actually a terminal. It's a 14-ounce terminal that is shorter than my hand. It has a keyboard, it plugs into a telephone. Every time I get off of a plane, I go to a pay phone, plug it in, and dial a local number in any city in the country, and it goes to a satellite dish and then to McLean, Virginia, where it turns on my computer account at The Source. And I read my mail.

My agent abstracts my correspondence, and she says, 'Do you want to do this?' And I answer, 'Y, N, Y, Y, N, N, Y, N, Y.' — Some of you say, 'There — see? Anti-human.' No. That's so I can get it done fast, so I can then flirt with her on the computer!

You see, I want the high touch, but after the high tech. We do business first, instantly, so we don't spend time anymore saying 'I'll have to think about that.' I now know that the only difference between a slow decision and a fast decision is the amount of time I take.

Am I empowered by being able to go to a phone out here in the lobby and call the satellite and answer all of my mail 24 hours a day from anywhere? You bet I am.

Do any of you play 'telephone tag?' Suppose any three of us wanted to try to exchange a piece of information. I call you, then I call Adele. And when I get the answer from Adele. I call you back and then call Adele back to tell her what you said. That could take a week.

Now with my little computer here, I just send messages through e-mail. You read it and put the answer in my 'mailbox.' Adele reads it and puts her answer there too. In two minutes I can read them both and get the same answer to each of you almost instantly.

Now, does that empower anybody? Only if you want to get work done.'

"These are transforming technologies. But the technology is not the transformation. It's our relationship with one another that's undergoing transformation. And I do believe it's a transformation; I don't think it's just a change.

There is a difference, because there are two basic kinds of change: one is structural, one is cyclical. Cyclical changes come, and they go, and they come again. But structural changes, once they're made, you never go back.

Once cars started, buggy whips were gone. I believe that technology today is creating structural changes in society. Particularly the microcomputer. It is an entry portal into a whole new way of living and working and yes, being human.

It used to be that the technologies were discrete. Remember when phones were phones and TVs were TV's? And now you know, don't you, that you can make phone calls on TV sets? You can push a button and the kids can sit around the TV and talk to Grandma through the TV set.

"The technology is not the revolution. There is a revolution in human awareness and aliveness."

And they want you to think of your television set as a window to the world. It's not a TV, but an access port. It will link together newspapers, mainframe computers, microcomputers, fiber optic systems, telephones, television, satellites, and it will deliver news and information to your home. I have it right now in my apartment.

Right now, before I give a speech I check the UPI Newswire to see if there's anything breaking that I could use in my speech.

Now, what is it worth to have instantaneous reference and clerical support from your bedroom put into a speech ten minutes before you go do it? Well, my Source bill is about $30 a month. That's what it costs. What is it worth? About 200 times that.'

"I think we are going through what I call the void. We're in this curious age of the parenthesis. It's not just users versus non-users. There are also many users who look at microcomputers and say, 'it's just a number-cruncher.' Many of the people inside the system are outside the revolution.

I believe the void, the not knowing, is the most powerful stimulus for creative problem solving that exists. The not knowing is what it's about.

"You've got to be ignorant of a matter in order to learn it."

Any of you ever read about David Voltz? He broke the world indoor pole vault record just before Billy Olsen did. One of David's goals is to overcome the power of gravity. He believes that we are frightened about going up because we're frightened about coming down. And one of the big barriers about jumping 20 feet is that after you do it, you have to fall 20 feet. So he is stepping off greater and greater heights. He practices falling so he can jump higher.

When he broke the record last October, he knocked the standard off the top of the bars. But he wasn't worried about falling, because he's already got falling handled.

So he reached behind him, caught the bar, lifted it back up on the standards, steadied it: let go of it, and fell into the pit. The judges took two hours to figure out what happened.

One group said, 'Well, he knocked the bar off.' The other group said, 'Well, that's true, but he put it back.' And they looked through the rules, and it doesn't say anything about putting it back.

"Technology is not the transformation. It's our relationship with one another that's undergoing transformation."

In other words, if you're going through the void, if we're getting the magazine out, if we're trying to learn a computer, if we're doing whatever we're doing, and it doesn't work, the payoff is in what we do in the void. It's what you do right there — when you're in extremis — that's the payoff. It demonstrates more about who you are as a human being than whether you clear the bar or not.

So I acknowledge and I salute the void we're passing through. I have no idea how this is going to turn out, my hands are scared and wet and clammy all the time, and I love it, because I'm very alive right now.

But as we go through this void, there are a lot of problems coming up. Good news and bad news everywhere you look.

When you get a computer you start speeding up, and when you speed up you need more responsibility — brighter headlights. If you're driving 20 miles an hour you can use a flashlight. If you're going 100 miles an hour, you need to start checking.

So, as we speed up, we need to look at the negative impact of all of this. What about the information gap? What about all the people who live within a mile of us who don't have a computer or any way of getting one because there are hungry mouths to feed? Do you think we can just blissfully wire up all the churches? Hold teleconferences about the poor?

"It's what you do in the void...when you're in extremes that's the payoff. I think what you do in the void demonstrates mnore about who you are a human being than whether you clear the bar."

People need to be thinking about justice, hope and concern — in technology and all the media. The Center's doing that. Media&Values does that. I think we should figure out what we can do to assist them in doing what they're doing, so that it's not assisting them, but we are doing it."

"I always end with action tips. Here are seven of them:

  1. I think you ought to be conscious. I think you ought to be conscious as much as you can. Look around. Notice what is going on. Be conscious.
  2. I think you ought to be ignorant… about everything you are ignorant about. You ought to be willing to acknowledge that you're ignorant, and that you don't know.
  3. I think you ought to build a network — you, all of you ought to build a network. Not just around what the Center is doing, although they're doing great things, but we all ought to know who we can reach and what we can offer to each other.
  4. Teach somebody something every day. You'll find out that you will learn a lot.
  5. You ought to share the best of who you are all the time. I see many people who say, 'Well, this is not the best place in the world to share the best of who I am. I'll save my best until I'm with people as good as I am.' Well, you're going to have to wait awhile.
  6. Come from aliveness. Put out aliveness, even if you've got a problem.. .if you're uncertain, if you don't know how it's going to turn out, if you don't know whether it's going to work. I found out that being alive is a lot better than the alternatives.
  7. And my last tip would be: after you've applied all of those and while you apply them, support Media&Values magazine. God bless you all and be well."
Author Bio: 

Richard Byrne, mentor and friend to everyone at Media&Values, was on the founding faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He died of cancer in 1989. It was in Dr. Byrne's seminar on Communication and Social Values, that the idea for Media&Values was birthed in 1977.