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This letter to the editor of MIT:Technology Review turned out to be a good introduction of me,
my work and my thinking. And so I have included it here.

TO MAT HONAN, EDITOR, TECHNOLOGY REVIEW


Re: “Big technology is slowing innovation,”
March-April 2022


I arrived at MIT in September 1959. I left in 1967 with an EE degree in electrical engineering and an MS in solid state physics. I then became the fifth employee of Bose Corporation. Prof. Bose had been my faculty advisor and he offered me the position when I decided not to extend my stay at MIT to do a dissertation for a PhD.

In my first semester I had registered for course 6.41, Introduction to Automatic Computation. John McCarthy, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, was a guest lecturer.

MIT in 1959 had one computer, a vacuum tube IBM 704 which was was programmed via IBM punched cards. We learned Fortran and machine language. The experience, especially of watching students spend long nights coding convinced me that was not the way I wished to spend my life. I decided not to pursue computers but rather went on to solid state physics and then psychoacoustics. James Bessen’s article, “Big technology is slowing innovation” struck a rather loud chord, a result of living within a fabulous span of technology innovation. I began with WW-II vintage vacuum tubes and now use a Mac Pro, a 10-color ink-jet printer, and a high-end digital camera. Beginning in 1974 my passion changed from high fidelity audio to high fidelity landscape photography which occupies me today (see the various galleries on this website: lightsongfineart.com).

However, the technology I love the most was invented in the late 1800s and is represented in my home by a superb Mason-Hamlin BB 7' grand piano made in 1917. Steinway, which makes a similar piano (the Steinway B) takes one year to make a piano. Neither has any technology that was not available at the turn of the 19th century. Now why, given my background and experience would I focus on such old technology.

My experience in electronics, acoustics, computers and many other technologies for some 65 years has led me to think and write about the human experience, the matter of what people do with their lives and why and what it is that brings satisfaction and joy. The short version of my views is that James Bessen’s article is a perfect example of how humanity has trained its attention on innovation that adds little and may subtract a great deal from the meaning and enjoyment of life.

This focus is not Mr. Bessen’s fault. It permeates society from one end of the earth to the other. It permeates the teachings of the finest universities as well as other organizations devoted to learning and to religion. Now, how could such a problem be so universal.

The focus of the most powerful people in our society is wealth and power, with little concern for those less fortunate. The wealth of the United States resides in about 100 families, a 7 to 1 shift from the 1950s and teaching gets short shrift in much of our society.

So what should be taught that is not taught?

Science is essential for it focuses on verifiable truth. However, even in the most learned scientific circles science is where learning stops. In religion, war is often the outcome despite the writings of supposedly wise teachers.

My own views begin with the beginning itself. The beginning of time which cannot be explained by science except that the universe is structured such that higher forms of life can evolve. No one knows why. The earth is structured so that life can begin and evolve. No one knows why.

Thus we are left with the most important question in the universe: what we do with the miraculous earth and our miraculous brains. Today we are on the edge of killing the earth for not only must we stop emitting green-house gasses, we must remove those already emitted. If we build an enormous carbon sequestration capability it will be a race between its capacity and the warming from the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere.

We are still left with the question of how did we get to this place and the only answer I can offer is that we are not paying attention. We are leftovers from hunter-gatherer tribes and religious teachings (68% of Americans believe in the devil, acccording to one survey). We carry inexplicable miracles on our shoulders and miracles happen between our ears. When I hear the glorious sound of my piano it is two flaps of skin that detect it and send it to my auditory cortex. When I view my landscape images or, for that matter, all that is around me it is just two small images on my retinas that see the photograph and create the experience of the world around me. Yet this utterly stunning, impossible to understand capability, gives us the experience of joy yet is rarely part of teaching, yet artists experience it every day. Yes, of course, others experience it too, but without the awareness that would bring it to the very top of our priorities.

In comparison to my Mason & Hamlin piano, I view Alexa as worthless although most of the world would think I am crazy. Something that computerizes my home, based on my experience with technology is a worthless nuisance compared to sitting at a world-class 7-foot grand piano and playing a Chopin polonaise, ballade or scherzo. The experience is profound and I would not attach profundity to Alexa or any other “cutting edge” technology, but you will never know it unless you learn to hear it or do it.

To be clear, I love technology. I spend the greater part of every day at my Mac Pro (as I am now) mostly digitizing, optimizing and printing some of the 20,000 sheets of 4" x 5" film I shot over about 30 years before digital steered me into Photoshop creativity (see Introduction to LightSongs). However, there is not a trace of automation in our home. There is the piano and a large, acoustically beautiful room with 14 foot angled ceilings and professional recording capability.

Why?

I have another rather jumbled website: caringfortheearth.com. I created it in response to global warming, although the site began as inanothersshoes.com in response to the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. But the engineer in me trembled at the news of global warming and the potential positive feedback of methane release from the melting tundra. My deepest fears are being realized and my soul fell into a very deep depression as I watched the planet I loved and, in a sense, documented with my camera, being beaten into submission by an uncomprehending humanity. I cannot conceive it being rescued from a terrible fate.

What has gone wrong? Most likely evolution which left us with the limited space and time vision of hunter gatherers and the invention of agriculture which released the hunters into the world to build our civilization. A speculation is that these hunters were the forbears of our most ambitious industrialists and eventually innovators whose souls have been captured by power, money and, of course, innovation along with a perspective on life that makes piles of money the natural way and earth-destroying and soul-robbing joyless innovation our way of life, and eventually death as the earth perishes under our feet.

There are few good guides that would have helped (or could help) avoid a joyless fate. Comprehension of life requires a wide range of experience and knowledge, enough to get the essence of science but especially enough of the arts to go beyond life that can be expressed in calculus or words.

I have been stunningly lucky to have had deep experience in science and the visual and musical arts. This in turn has given me, at the age of 80 joy and satisfaction I could not have imagined. They are for the most part simple and timeless: breakfast with my musician/gardener wife (see A Melangé: One Day’s Flower Harvest); the agony and ectasy of raising a small boy born in Sochi Russia; playing Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven on my Mason-Hamlin; listening to every kind of musical performance over the internet on my Bose (50 year old prototype) 901 speakers; and staring for twenty years at a photograph I took near Walden Pond one glorious never-to-be-repeated afternoon. This photograph is shared with thousands of others in prints and books.

Then there is our grand-daughter Amelia, who visits regularly and prompts me to make one or two hundred photographs of the incomparable expressions, smiles, joy, puzzlements, frowns that I choose (see I Just Met A Girl Named Amelia ).

Cosmology has been one of my interests since I was in my teens. I have followed the science ever since. But above all, existance: how we came to exist and why and how our brains give us the experience of Chopin from two tiny ear drums, and the visual world all around us from two small upside-down images on our retinas.

In all my recent readings in science (particularly brain science and cosmology) there are no answers to why and how. But far, far worse in all my readings about politics, war, religion and...innovation do I ever read of what beauty and joy life should be bringing to humanity.

This philosophy of an assertion that the purpose of the universe is joy from beauty and creativity should be taught at all schools, colleges and universities. In its place we get politics, money grubbing, power grabbing, imagined religion and, now, war. There is much serious thinking and teaching that is not being done, at least not nearly at the necessary scale, breadth and depth.

And so I give you this image and this music.


John Wawrzonek MIT SB 1963, SM 1965, EE 1967.

MM 6045 0502
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