ICAS Fall Symposium

No. 1998-0929-JHK

Technology and Values
And the Value of Technology:
Shaping Life in the Information Age

Jeong H. Kim

Fall 1998 ICAS Symposium

September 29, 1998
Faculty Club, 3rd Floor (Connecticut - Delaware Rooms)
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Jeong H. Kim

Technology and Values And the Value of Technology:
Shaping Life in the Information Age

Jeong H. Kim

I would like to thank the Institute for Corean-American Studies for inviting me to speak here this evening and for recognizing me with its Liberty Award. I’m honored to be included in a program of such accomplished speakers and to be added to the list of such distinguished award recipients.

Over the last year, as news of Yurie Systems has spread through the high tech and financial communities, I have been fortunate to receive several awards. Most of these have focused on my achievements as an entrepreneur, building a team, a product, and a business that became industry leaders in their own right and eventually valuable additions to Lucent Technologies. I am very proud of those awards and the work that I, and Yurie as a whole, did to earn them.

The ICAS Liberty Award means something very different to me, however. Rather than simply give me the chance to reflect on past accomplishments, this award makes me look to the future and ask myself what I am going to do now. By offering me this award and including me in today’s discussion on Asia’s challenges ahead, the ICAS reminds me that having acquired certain resources, position, or know-how, I have also acquired a level of greater responsibility. And that responsibility extends well beyond my personal well being and the well being of family and employees. With any advancement comes the challenge of how best to use it, whether that it be money, influence, knowledge, or technology.

I mention all of this because I believe it relates closely to what I was asked to talk about this evening--Humanity and Technology in the 21st Century, or more specifically, how technology and innovations will play out on human values and prosperity. This is a topic that really asks, I think, how you make the best use of the resources you have.

There is certainly little debate that technology can improve the quality of our lives, that it can extend life and our understanding of it, and that it can increase individual and national prosperity. One only needs to think of the printing press, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the X-ray, the jet plane, or the personal computer to be reminded how technology spawns new industries, revolutionizes old ones, and changes the way we live day-to-day. As we approach the 21st century, it is information and communication technologies above all others that will influence our lives and affect all segments of the world’s economies. They have certainly shown their power to do so already.

Thanks to information and communication technologies, school children in the U.S. can now work jointly on projects with school children in Europe, Asia, Latin America, just as workers here in Philadelphia can collaborate real-time with colleagues around the country and around the globe. Businesses can streamline operations by sharing secure networks with suppliers and distributors, by outsourcing such functions as inventory management and customer service, or by automating tasks that once took several people several days. Military personnel in the field can now receive virtually unlimited data over the most limited of transmission links. Tele-medicine, telecommuting, and distance learning are now commonplace.

Thanks to information and communication technologies, the world has become, and can continue to become, a smaller and more convenient place. Email is erasing borders and minimizing time zone barriers. On-line trading, banking, and shopping are making rigid hours of operation a thing of the past. Pagers and cell phones put us within reach almost anywhere, anytime. And the Internet is delivering news, research, and ideas to people who, just a short time ago, might never have encountered this information in their lifetimes.

But as the past has taught us and the present reminds us, although technology’s benefits are unlimited, its potential dangers are equally as great. It almost goes without saying that tools which can be used to bring about significant good can just as easily be used to do serious harm. It’s the knowledge that technology can be used to both aid and harm that constantly tests those of us who create, promote, or use it. When we recognize the complex nature of technology’s potential, innovation forces us to examine what we believe is most important. It asks us remember what exactly it is we’re striving for. It demands that we exercise judgement, that we make sound decisions, that we accept our responsibilities to ourselves and others.

Joseph Weizenbaum, professor emeritus in computer science at MIT and author of the book Computer Power and Human Reason, was asked in an interview a while back what role he saw for computers in education. Rather than answer the question directly, Weizenbaum turned it inside out, pointing out that the question itself assumed that the computer was good for something in education, that it was the solution to some educational problem. "The question should start the other way," he said, "it should perhaps start with the question of what education is supposed to accomplish in the first place. Then perhaps one should state some priorities--it should accomplish this, it should do that, it should do the other thing. Then one might ask, in terms of what [education] is supposed to do . . . what are the most urgent problems? And once one has identified the urgent problems, then one can perhaps say, ‘Here is a problem for which the computer seems to be well-suited.’"

As this response reminds us, the proper use of technology depends upon much more than what the technology itself can do. Before we can responsibly apply the tools we have, we must carefully consider our objectives, our priorities, and the values that shape them both. Just as governments require an institutional framework of laws and regulations, and just as communications networks require an infrastructure of links, switches, and transmission protocols, our intelligent use of technology requires some kind of underpinning. Call that underpinning what you will--ethics, values, objectives, judgement--it is a necessary foundation for the responsible use of knowledge and the tools we create with it.

When I started Yurie Systems in 1992, I tried to establish just such an underpinning. I defined a four-part mission for the organization which I listed on a PowerPoint slide and included in early presentations about the company. As I saw it from the start, our mission was this:

  • To develop a product that increases the quality of life
  • To build a company which remains customer focused
  • To create an enjoyable and stimulating work environment
  • To reinvest in the people, the technology, and the community we serve
When I took the company public in 1996, I was firmly cautioned not to describe this mission to investment bankers, who--to put it mildly--might be somewhat concerned about the absence of "profit", "revenue", or "shareholder value" in my vision for the company. Nonetheless, these four ideas served as guiding principles for the company throughout its existence. Even as our business plan evolved with a move from government to commercial markets and with shifts in our distribution strategy, these principles remained a constant foundation for our interactions with customers, with each other, and with technology.

As the company grew, there were certainly times when these principles were clouded or challenged. But having them there to begin with gave us a point of reference, helping us to confront the difficult questions that arose along the way. The importance of such a framework should not be underestimated.

Perhaps because it can be used to help or to hinder, or perhaps because it takes us to places we have never been before, technology has a way of testing what we believe in and a way of raising questions we never anticipated. Advances in biotechnology, most obviously, force us to weigh the healing benefits of research, on the one hand, against religious or ethical convictions, on the other. Information technology presents its own wealth of challenges. As people broadcast their most mundane and most intimate moments on Web for all to see, how do we redefine the notion of "privacy" and the role it plays in our lives? With modems, cell phones, and pagers allowing us to be connected around the clock, are we sacrificing the once clear distinction between work and home, between job and personal life? And with the Internet shuttling phenomenal volumes of data at phenomenal rates, are we forgetting how to distinguish what is worth looking at and why, what is worth using and how?

We may not have answers to these questions today, and we may never have definitive answers to these or the more difficult questions that are bound to follow. But we are still on the right track if we can recognize these challenges as challenges and treat these questions as things worth thinking and talking about. So when I consider again the topic I was asked to address this evening, Human Values and Technology in the 21st century, I would have to say, "I hope so." For only with a strong framework in place can we use technology to its greatest potential and realize our own.

[I must admit, as I was preparing my remarks for this evening, I could not help but find these words somehow inadequate in the face of the current economic crisis in Asia. With Asia’s once-burgeoning middle class in Asia sinking back into poverty, with hundreds of businesses folding each week, with millions of people having lost their jobs--what good can I do talking about the importance of values in technology?

But as a technologist, I can’t help but believe in the power of technology to improve the quality of our lives. And as a technologist and a businessman, I can’t help but believe that technology--specifically, a strong communications infrastructure--will play an important role in the recovery of Asian economies. But I also know that neither technologists nor business people, economists nor foreign policy experts can effect change on their own. Together, however, we might be able to. And so I thank the ICAS for including me in today’s discussion, and for giving us all the chance to evaluate our current positions, define our priorities, and establish a framework upon which to use responsibly and effectively the resources we have.]

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants
Fall 1998