Technology systems

Technology, systems thinking, ethics and dharma – Buddhistdoor Global

This column explores the parallels between the Buddha’s teachings and various aspects of contemporary technologies. This month’s article discusses the field of systems – often referred to as systems thinking (the theoretical side) and systems engineering (the practical aspects of development) – and some related concepts in the Buddhadharma, highlighting the relevance of this convergence for contemporary thought, particularly in relation to the ethics of technology.

Technology is seen by some as the product of computation and mathematics. From large mechanical systems and infrastructure such as ships and planes, bridges and roads, to software and hardware systems that only emerged in the last century, we can see many examples of technologies that are changing the world around us for the better.

It is however useful to remember that mankind has a very long history, much of which is unwritten and undocumented. This story is underpinned by the use of technology in different forms. Technology has been around for thousands of years and initially it was based on creativity and skill.

The Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. At thinkco.com

The term technology, derived from the Greek terms technical (arts, crafts) and logos (word, discourse), means “a discourse on the arts” and first appeared in English in the 17th century. At first it was only used to signify a discussion of applied arts. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the term began to be used in reference to means, processes, ideas, tools and machines. In the middle of the 20th century, technology was defined by expressions such as: “The means or activity by which man seeks to modify or manipulate his environment”. (Encyclopedia British)

Understanding technology is essential in our time, as most human and social activities today are “technology-mediated”, with larger and increasingly complex technological systems becoming increasingly important and even dominant. It has reached the point where there is a risk that technological mediation could influence the future of humanity in ways beyond our control.

Image extraite du film <i>Me, Robot</i> (2004).  At filmquarterly.org”/><figcaption>Always movie <em>I robot</em> (2004).  At filmquarterly.org</figcaption></figure>
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<p>Existential risks arise from a number of sources, including the development of engineered pathogens, advanced AI, and geoengineering.  its adoption.  As technologies become more complex and layered, they require more advanced theories to be understood and explained, such as those in the field of systems.</p>
<p>When systems grow beyond a single application domain and their boundaries span different domains and disciplines, they become complex systems.  Today, we can better understand this thanks to the emergence of a relatively new discipline: the science of complexity.  I briefly presented a superficial exploration of some correspondence between Vajrayana, complexity science and engineering in a lecture at the first Vajrayāna Conference for the Center for Gross National Happiness Studies and Bhutan in 2016. (<a href=Conference slides available here)

Beyond that, there is a growing number of scholarly publications dedicated to this topic. ** Interestingly, an ancient Sanskrit term could possibly be one of the roots, or a cognate, of the term system: saṃsthānam (संस्थानम्), meaning: 1) A collection, a heap, a quantity; 2) The aggregation of primary atoms; 3) Setup, location.

Stafford Beer, a well-known systems researcher (mostly cited in technical literature for his contribution to the concept of viable systems), served in India during British rule. Privately, he confessed to his peers that he was a practicing Buddhist. Many scholars and learned Buddhist leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, view Buddhism as a science rather than a religion, in the sense that both Western science and Buddhism aim to benefit mankind. Both also define their starting axioms encouraging practitioners to make assumptions about reality and give reproducible methods for testing whether assumptions and experiences of reality match.

Exploration of parallels between systemics and Buddhism is ongoing. Already, the correlation between Buddhism and General Systems Theory (GST) has been formally established, showing that, as postulated by GST, all systems obey the same laws of organization.

Causality, generally defined as the interrelationship of cause and effect, is about how things happen, how changes happen, how events are related. The Buddhist term Dharma carries the same meaning. It also refers to the Buddha’s teachings as a whole. . . for the way life is understood and lived is rooted in causal assumptions.

Thus, causation from the perspective of open systems bears similarities to the Buddhist teaching on causation. . . . The Buddhist causal view is variously translated by different authors (e.g. Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai 1966; Harvey 1990; Macy 1991; Dumoulin 1994) as “mutual causation”, “dependent co-appearance”, “dependent origination”, “conditioned arising” or “conditional causation”. (Shen and Midgely 2000)

The similarity between the systemic field and Buddhism is remarkable. One possible lens for observing such connections is the nature of the mind: ultimately, we are always looking at our mind, and we project and imprint our own mindset onto the objects of observation and attention. Thus, both a holistic view of systems as a complex whole and the realization of spirit as found in the mahāmudra The tradition stems from an evolutionary trait of human cognition: the ability to observe reality in its complexity using the whole brain.

This adds an additional level to the conjunction of systemics and Buddhism: cognition. Cognitive engineering, and perhaps even neuroscience – which can benefit from the vast and refined heritage of tools and techniques that can be derived from Buddhism – can benefit from the growing dialogue between Buddhists and systems theorists.

A final point I would like to make here is about function versus dysfunction in systems. In a previous article, I noted that systems engineering, like Buddhist practices, relies on following processes and principles to ensure system integrity and ultimately the proper functioning of the system. *** I also started writing about systemic deviation. ****

An example of systemic deviation in Buddhism can be found in monastic institutions that actually abuse, such as the case recently reported by Buddhistdoor Global in which the spiritual organization ends up becoming not a place of love and compassion but of punishment. and abuse.**** *

Systemic deviation occurs when the processes of a given organization or transaction lose connection with their purpose (function) and become twisted, often to serve a contrary purpose (dysfunction). This happens often. It is partly caused by the inherent fallibility of human and social systems. When developing new technologies, we must keep this human tendency to error in mind and design accordingly: a system’s lack of adherence to its principles is likely to lead to systemic dysfunction.

From a theoretical and ethical perspective, Dharma systems can support integrity and principled adherence. From a pragmatic perspective, good technology and engineering practices can support system consistency. Unifying these two threads is likely to strengthen them both.

* Innovation: Manage risk, not avoid it (Government Office for Science [UK])

**Victory, David Tin,”Kamma and chaos theory (complexity science)”. ABAC Review Vol.28, n°3 (September-December 2008, pp.71-80)

*** Good effort in system design (Buddhistdoor Global)

**** Di Maio, Paola, 2016.”Systemic Deviation, aka: The Evil in the Machine(Academic)

***** Alarm bells are ringing over child abuse in Thailand’s Buddhist temples (Buddhistdoor Global)

The references

Shen, Chao Ying and Gerald Midgley. 2007. “Towards a Methodology of Buddhist Systems 1: Comparisons between Buddhism and Systems Theory”, in Systemic practice and action research 20(3):167–94.

See more

history of technology (Encyclopedia Britannica)