Thinking Tech

Why is smart controversial?

Why is smart controversial?

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Smart should not be controversial. But smart means seeing the world's problems as complicated, solutions as interconnected. It also means taking responsibility for unintended consequences.

For the last six months this site has been sponsored by IBM.

For that reason I have been reluctant to write about IBM, or to criticize the company. The former might represent a conflict of interest, the latter a threat to the site's well-being.

I am not going to criticize the company here, either. Not in what they're doing, what they're selling, how they make their money.

IBM has, over the last 20 years, succeeded in making itself non-controversial, even while raising its profitability. It's one of the greatest transformations in the history of American business. (Absolutely full disclosure. My IRA bought 100 shares years ago.)

My concern is about this whole idea of smart. Or smarter. As in "IBM is making a smarter planet." The proposition IBM offers here and in its advertising.

The commercials seek to make this non-controversial. Traffic lights that let traffic flow. Using data to cut crime. Making green technologies profitable. Helping people live longer.

Who can be against smart?

A lot of people. I detect it in the talkback threads here, as well as those at ZDNet, where I write blogs on open source and healthcare.

I am often struck, for instance, at the number of respondents who see global warming, or health reform, as a grand conspiracy by liberal academics and bureaucrats interested only in making more money for themselves.

Consider "climate gate," the theft of e-mails mentioned here last week. Some now claim it proves a conspiracy exists to boost the idea of global warming. They claim climate science now is not settled, or that global warming is a myth.

This is stupid. Anyone who can read a thermometer or look at satellite pictures of ice caps knows what is happening. The Earth is heating, the seas are rising, just as Al Gore predicted. Storms are becoming more violent. I have yet to see a night temperature in Atlanta below freezing, and it's December. Unheard of.

Then let's look at motive. Scientists are corrupt because they're working under contracts? What about the billions of dollars earned every year by oil companies, chemical companies, coal companies? We know where a lot of it goes. You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out.

But there is an immense appetite out there for magical thinking. Even though night-time temperatures in every American city are 3-4 degrees hotter than in their suburbs, we want to pretend that what we do doesn't matter.

Well, that heating is the product of science, of smart people working over centuries to create technologies that would make life easier and longer. Without those smarts the critics would be trailing horses and looking desperately for cigarettes to take away the stench of droppings on the street and rotten food without refrigeration.

Or dropping like flies from diseases smart people have learned to cure or (better still) prevent.

Smart should not be controversial. But smart today requires that we see the world's problems as complicated, and solutions as interconnected. It also means taking responsibility for unintended consequences.

This may indeed be the problem. A century ago, two centuries ago, problems could be isolated. The Galapagos Islands were isolated. Industrial centers were isolated, and there was clean country to be found out of town, even wilderness.

Today, in order to answer any really important question, we have to look at systems, in all their complexity. You can't really answer problems of traffic except regionally. You can't answer the crime problem without looking at entire social systems. You can't cut health care costs without looking at lots of profitable, complex industries, each jealous of its prerogatives.

Smart, in the 21st century, means dealing with complexity, dealing with systems, and learning how one man's solution can easily become another one's crisis.

Smart is hard work.

It's so much easier to be stupid, and to pretend we can keep going along stupid, as we "always" have. Never mind that "always" has not been very long, even by the measure of American history, and that ignorance carries a price.

Once upon a time the land now known as Afghanistan was the cradle of civilizations. India's great civilization arose out of Central Asia, as did Iran's. Once Afghanistan was green and prosperous. (From Indology Research Blog.)

Then the unintended consequences came, and the smart of that time could not keep up, and ignorance rose up and overwhelmed the land. It holds the land still, and all the armed might of the smart world may not be enough to turn that around.

Want to move there? Stay stupid, argue for stupid, vote stupid. You'll get there, faster than you think.

As for me, I vote for smart, with eyes wide open, knowing that smart means accepting complexity, and unintended consequences, that smart can be wrong sometimes, which means all of us need to get smarter.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure