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Change without Change

August 19, 2015

Calico.

It's the name of a strange and wonderful breed of cats, but as the colloquial name for the California Life Company, it's also a cutting-edge research project run under Google's parent company, Alphabet. Exactly what do they research? Well, a good look at their website tells us:

Calico is a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives. - Calico Labs

Extending life spans globally, counteracting aging. In a few words, they're reaching for immortality.

And on its face, it seems completely absurd. But reality check: this is coming from the former leaders of Google, who's mapped out the entire world inside our phones, brought Street View to the world, has days' and days' worth of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and, oh yeah, are driving around in self-driving cars. So maybe it isn't so far-out as it seems.

Even more than that, the fact that a Silicon Valley start-up from not quite two decades ago could attempt to solve problems at this scale and at the same time appear not entirely insane is a testament to both the power and pace of technological innovation and the reach and depth of impact they have in every facet of our daily lives. We've put supercomputers inside people's pockets, diagnosed health problems with band-aids and contact lenses, trained our watches and glasses to be conversational, and mapped out everything from the human brain to interactions of entire galaxies. Technological innovation is powerful because it's so unbounded, insatiable, and accelerating.

Technological innovation is powerful because it's so unbounded, insatiable, and accelerating.
Unbelievable innovation has lead the way to giving individual people the power of nations and research labs just a few decades ago. But what we do with it is another matter.

But powerful, unfortunately, doesn't solve every problem.

Technology, no matter how revolutionary or seemingly magical, from iPhones to holographic goggles to self-driving cars, are collectively a set of tools. And as with any tool, they enable us, the users, to do things we couldn't have otherwise. They help us indirectly by expanding the metaphorical horizons of what we can do. Technology enables us to have the vast majority of human knowledge at our fingertips, to contact someone halfway around the world at a few seconds' notice, and live-stream an event across borders. It puts more computing power than most people need inside our pockets and teaches electronic circuitry to understand speech.

But new technologies come with a caveat, that innovation tells us what we can do -- which is a lot, by the way -- it leaves us hanging; it doesn't tell us why we should do it. That's left delegated to the domain of humanities. It's never the technologies themselves that are revolutionary. They provide the basis -- the "what" of the question -- for others to answer the question of "how". Online video streaming and YouTube were groundbreaking innovations that would have amounted to little more than ephemeral entertainment, had social movements and storytellers not found ways to take advantage of a social platform and build audiences around their passions. Technologies, no matter how innovative, can't survive if they can't find their places in compelling applications. And for that reason, if not any other, technology has no impact without a compelling "why", a compelling reason for them to exist. Innovation for the sake of rampant innovation is meaningless.

Innovation tells us what we can do -- which is a lot, by the way -- it leaves us hanging; it doesn't tell us why we should do it. That's the domain of humanities.

Pushing on the "technology" of technological innovation without looking for a compelling reason why by looking at the arts and the humanities is, therefore, a counterintuitively sure-fire way to make sure the technology doesn't prove successful. If we push on the limits of what's possible without realizing how to make the most of the frontier, it results in pushing the boundaries needlessly and fruitlessly -- change without any meaningful change. And we need the humanities to tell us why we should pursue innovation -- how to make the most of the best of technology. Only through the marriage of technology with these areas can we really tackle the deep questions that enrich our lives, which is, quite honestly, the point of technology -- why it exists at all.