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Is Technology the Problem or the Solution?
editorial by David M. Switzer
"Against the whole rushing stream of contemporary life, the individual feels himself rather powerless." You'd think that was written yesterday, but it was written by James Truslow Adams in 1931. So people have felt this way for a while, but life seems to be getting crazier and crazier. One of the main contributors to the chaos of modern life is our use of technology. Just as money can't buy you love, technology can't buy you happiness. That's obvious, but at the same time, do we act as if we believe it?
Technology has been around for a long time, and will continue to be around as long as there are humans (or great apes -- see my editorial in issue #5). But we have come to a point where we need to make some decisions about technology. Until now the philosophy has been: if we can build it, we should build it. To take an obvious example, many people are realizing that maybe we shouldn't have all these nuclear bombs sitting around.
There will always be some people who will try to convince us that we should go "back to nature" and reject whole swaths of technology. These people tell us that technology makes jobs obsolete, pollutes the earth, and destroys our relationship with nature. All true. But I don't think most of us are going to go build a log cabin in the wilderness. And I don't think we need to do that.
There will also always be some people who will try to convince us that any new technology is great and we should embrace it wholeheartedly. These people tell us that technology creates new kinds of jobs, solves problems more efficiently, and gives us more leisure time. All true. But we have been embracing new technologies, as a culture, and that strategy isn't working.
Neither of these groups of people are looking at the whole picture. Technology always has both good and bad consequences. One of the problems is that often the benefits are immediately obvious and the costs are hidden until years after the technology is first used. We need to be able to make informed decisions about which technologies' benefits outweigh their costs, and which don't.
When the experts test a new technology and pronounce it safe, we tend to believe them. But they can't test for everything. In addition to the fact that some effects don't manifest themselves until years after the testing is complete, the testing that is done probably doesn't encompass a wide enough scope. The testing is probably limited to technical difficulties, and should include more human concerns as well. When we decide to admit a new technology, we should do so not just because it was possible to create it, but because we understand it and believe it will be useful.
Neil Postman believed in 1992 when he wrote Technopoly that the US had become the world's first technopoly: that is, a culture in which technology is granted sovereignty over everything else. Whereas a few centuries ago people believed in the authority of religion, now they believe in the authority of science. When we want "the truth," we turn to science. But science can't tell us everything -- it can't tell us the meaning of life.
People also believe in statistics, a technical way of describing information. But statistics can easily be abused. There was a book published in 1954 by Darrell Huff called How to Lie with Statistics. In the recent provincial election here in Ontario, the leaders of the three major parties threw statistics at each other during their debate. But it didn't mean anything -- it was essentially a waste of time. They each had statistics which "proved" contradictory things. People even create their own misleading statistics: studies have shown that people believe the world to be more violent than it really is. Why? Judging from TV and newspapers, it would seem that the world is much more violent.
We put a lot of faith in computers and so-called objective measures (like statistics), and we don't have much faith in humans and subjective measures. Computers are dumb -- they can't do anything without a person telling them what to do. And as for humans, the ones I've met give me great hope. In the movies it's always the "good guys" and the "bad guys," but when was the last time you met a real bad guy?
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This may seem silly, but it's true. Tools contain their own ideological bias, their own way of looking at the world. Imagine how our worldview changed when the clock was invented, or the printing press. As for computers, René Dubos suggests in his book Celebrations of Life that they're making people think abstractly rather than concretely. He says: "As more and more of our activities have to do with the intangible domains of information, it may become more difficult to be 'grounded'... People may become more alienated from the world around them."
In our technological society, it's easy to solve material problems. If you want to build a "smart house" where everything is done for you by a computer, you can do it (if you have the money). But when there's a conflict between the technological solution and some other cultural value, it's less clear what to do. Technopoly doesn't tell us what to do about something in the moral domain. Our traditional values have all been made laughable, so what's left to turn to?
The motto of the 1933 World's Fair was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms." Are you surprised? You wouldn't find that motto being used today, not because people are trying to deceive us, but because they don't understand that this is what's going on. Why do we conform to technology? Surely it should be the other way around -- technology should conform to what we want.
In the recent movie Cube, a collection of characters wakes up inside a giant cube -- and none of them know how they got there. One of the characters reveals that he previously worked on building the cube. He had no idea why it was being built, and neither did anyone else. They had instructions to build it, so they built it. The cube has some pretty scary traps in it, but scarier than that is the viewer's realization that something like this could happen.
In addition to realizing that science and technology have achieved an inordinate position in our culture, we should also work towards a greater understanding of science and technology. Science and technology are mysterious to a lot of people. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan says that US school children and adults are severely lacking in scientific literacy. If people understood science, they wouldn't be as likely to give it their unthinking allegiance.
Technology has given us fast access to all the information we desire (except for a few things, like who really killed JFK). But this hasn't solved all our problems. In fact, we're experiencing information overload. Don't panic, though. Just take a deep breath. Even on the internet, you can find reliable information. You just have to be critical about what you're looking at -- good advice no matter what the medium.
We have already become accustomed to conforming to technology, but that's not the way it has to be. We can use technology, and even admire it, without thinking that it's the greatest thing humans have ever done. Instead of blindly accepting the imperatives of technopoly, we need to assert other values. What values? Religious values, moral values, cultural values -- human values.
René Dubos, Celebrations of Life. McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage, 1993.
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House, 1995.
David Suzuki, Inventing the Future: Reflections on Science, Technology and Nature. Stoddart, 1989.
David M. Switzer uses technology every day, but he tries not to let it use him. One of his favourite things to do when he's on vacation is go hiking in the mountains. He asserts that you won't watch as much TV after you read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Cover artist Andrey V. Ivanchenko (Anry) was born into a family of artists in 1975. While he was growing up his family moved around a lot, but they were often visited by artists, poets, musicians, and other interesting people. Anry studied art in high school, and drew posters for theatres to earn extra money. He became interested in the cultures of the Far East, and enthusiastic about the Japanese school of art. Anry currently works in Moscow. His agent, Nikolay S. Simkin, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: February 1, 2009
Copyright © 1999 David M. Switzer