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What I learned about technology from the stern of a Venetian rowboat

On a venetian rowboat, the stern man is the skipper

Against all odds and convictions, the idea of learning to row in the Venetian style—voga—was hard to resist. Venice is connected by water and, if one happens to live here, rowing in its canals is, literally, a physical way of embracing the city by circulating through its veins.

How not to admire Venetian gondoliers as they steer and propel with apparently effortless grace their stylized boats through canals, overcoming the waves made by the vaporettos and motorized boats. They move the paddle with a hand, while with the other they often fiddle with their mobile phones.

We all start out in life in different places and what comes easy to some can be very difficult or impossible for others. Given what I learned about the limits of my abilities over half a century, rowing in the Venetian style was not something advisable to venture into.

An article I read at least fifteen years ago still carries an oddly powerful mix of relief and mild consternation. Published in a U.S. newspaper, it was based on a scientific paper that ascribed to genes a more prominent role in our abilities than previously thought: certain genes, or combinations thereof, make us more skilled in physical activities like dancing or enhance our potential for sciences.

Here was finally the explanation as to why tango was an intractable problem or why some subjects in school were endless sources of boredom and pain, including a dislike of all things technological (as opposed to mechanical). It was also sad, for so many goals would now appear to be out of bounds if one obeyed the determinism of genes: playing the violin, tango and now voga.

And yet, and yet…

All Life is Problem Solving

A pair of extraordinary voga teachers, Beppi Suste—a legend of Venetian rowing—and Caroline Barray, as talented a sculptress as she is a vogatrice, were of great help to overcome my hardened prejudices against learning a new art at a relatively late age. That, genial crewmates, and Karl Popper’s essay “All Life is Problem Solving.”

In the essay, based on a lecture at Bad Homburg in 1991, Popper discussed the time-honored method of trial and error. “Life, beginning with unicellular organisms, invents the most astonishing things. New inventions or mutations are usually eliminated, being much more often bad mistakes than successful trials.”

It took Nature, he argued, a long time to address errors, whereas humans applied the trial and error method systematically in their relentless effort to move the wheels of progress. Nonetheless, Nature was still far superior, he said:

“Many of [Nature’s] inventions—for example, the conversion of solar energy into an easily storable form of chemical energy—we have so tried vainly to imitate. But we shall succeed in the foreseeable future.”

Karl Popper

Nobody could blame the Austro-British philosopher, noted for his opus magnum The Open Society and Its Enemies, for the restrained optimism that runs through the essay: the Berlin Wall had collapsed just a couple of years earlier, and the Soviet Union was coming apart, heralding a post-Cold War era of peace and democracy that, now we know, was not to be. But more on that some other time.

Intriguingly, he referred to education as “technology” and to our failures in learning as “technological errors.” Yet if one looks into the Greek etymology of technology—the study of an art or craft, to put it in a simplified way—one does realize that education is, indeed, technology in its purest form.

Some fifteen years after reading it, his essay helped me understand the importance of the work done by a digital banking company. Nothing could be farther from the realm of my curiosity as a journalist and writer interested in Armenia and the former Soviet Union. Yet fascinating talks with executives that run this digital banking company, our customer at Verb, shed light on the importance of their mission.

We need green zebras with purple stripes and red elephants with two trunks

It was humbling to hear the chief executive officer of this company explain, in simple terms, that digital banking was a means for equitable wealth transfer. Any moderately informed person can think of at least a dozen situations or places with people that need help. And yet even if we had the money to afford it and wanted to send aid, what could we do? Can we get help in the blink of an eye to any of the trouble spots we have in mind? So much blood and tears shed over ideological arguments in the course of history, and here there was a team of engineers going over algorithms and putting in endless hours of work in front of their computers, addressing technological problems and, by adding and subtracting codes that are unintelligible to the everyman and to the great ideologues of mankind, they were probably doing much more than the latter towards giving a fair shot to the less fortunate of us who share the same planet and sun.

The cybersecurity chief of the digital banking company explained in figurative speech how they repelled hacker attacks. If the response tools were animals, he said, you would have zebras in your stable but for one particular attack he would need green zebras with purple stripes, or red elephants with two trunks. Cyber threats were always mutating and so should your response too. In hindsight, it was a clear example of trial and error put at the service of wealth transfer. If these sound like big words, think of fathers and mothers who are wiring remittances to their families in far-off homelands, often a few hundred, hard-earned dollars. If engineering work sounds grey and boring to you, it is inspiring to realize that this man and his team are helping protect the savings of thousands of workers and their children, probably much more than many a self-styled fighter for social justice who has never put to work any other skill outside the rhetorical ones.

Start by doing what’s necessary

Avo didn’t fall

Which brings us back to the matter of learning. It has now become fashionable to say that we all need to learn new skills and unlearn others as, for many of us, the economy is transforming beyond recognition.

In the mouth of many, especially politicians, these calls to learn new abilities are little more than humbug, in a few cases well-intentioned, but nonsense, nonetheless. In Nature as in our lives, we learn new things in childhood and youth and make a living off it as adults as we pass on whatever knowledge we have acquired to those who will follow in our footsteps in this world. We cannot go on learning big things forever, and certainly not in order to make a living.

That means that there is a time when one reasonably, and with no little pain, can give up his childhood dream of learning to play the violin. That may also be an error correction, from a Popperian perspective, by releasing the violin teacher’s time for more promising candidates and the student’s money and efforts for other uses.

Yet it should be no obstacle towards trying to learn other arts, like voga, at least to manage to paddle and steer the boat, and contemplate the towers and palaces that line the canals of Venice. Some are crooked, some have been falling apart for centuries, and some others have long been shut off to the world, devoid of owners or tenants and full of memories now forgotten and untold, yet all beautiful to watch as the successes, defeats and, mostly, the many unexpected things that make up our lives.

A renowned economist was quoted as saying that humility is a vastly overrated virtue. Apparently it had worked out for him. Yet as said before, we all start out in a difference place, in different circumstances and—if that science paper is to be believed—with different genes.

A simple guide towards getting things done comes from a humble man who prayed in a minuscule chapel of Umbria, in Central Italy. As I propelled the boat past the Rialto bridge—a big benchmark for anyone who rows in the Venetian style—leaving behind decades of prejudices against the ability to learn something new for which I was supposedly and naturally untalented, it was inevitable to think, with gratitude, of Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”