In questions about the negative effects of various technologies, the real question we should be asking isn't whether it can be used for good or ill.
If there’s one thing the internet is overstocked with right now, it’s articles on the negative side-effects of technology. It seems that at least once or twice a week, another article makes the rounds pointing out some new unintended consequence of our technology. We read them, and become aware of things that should have been obvious all along: the internet has severely diminished tour attention span; smartphones actually make us pretty dumb; Twitter enables narcissism; etc.
Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), they all seem to come to the same conclusion, or at least share the same basic assumption, which is: it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it. In other words, the tool is neutral – we can put that tool to good purposes or bad purposes, so all we have to do is make sure we’re using them properly. Yes, Twitter can encourage narcissism, but only if you let it. Yes, smartphones and the internet are dumbing down society, but only because we haven’t been pointing them toward educational purposes well enough. This assumption views technology as a sort of ecosystem – we just need to keep an eye on it to make sure everything stays balanced. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away; blessed be the name of technology.
I don’t have much patience for that assumption. It is reminiscent of the sort of therapeutic deism that so often passes for religion these days: it offers all of the reassurance that we’re thinking seriously and maturely about these things, without any of the discomfort of actually having to significantly change our behavior.
So we nod sagely at each new report, agree as the author concludes that we just need to figure out how to use these new technologies for good and not ill, and then promptly return to using them exactly as we did before, confident that we, at any rate, are using them correctly, even if the rest of society hasn’t figured it out yet.
I should perhaps soften up a bit – it’s at least half-true that one can use certain technologies for better purposes or worse. But I worry that by constantly focusing on this half-truth we are beginning to believe it to be the whole truth, the only thing to be said about technology. So instead of the “technology is a neutral tool to be used for good or evil” view, I’d like to posit a different one: It’s not how you use the tool, it’s why the tool exists in the first place.
Part of the confusion comes, I think, from our propensity to talk about technologies (plural) as if they were just some conglomeration of gadgets, all loosely sharing the common theme of being new and owing their existence to the more recent advances in computer engineering.
As much as I hate to get all philosophical and make everything into an abstract concept (that’s a lie, I love it), perhaps we should think about technology not as a bunch of gadgets, but a way of thinking.
That’s what so many of these warnings about technology seem to miss; that the specific instances of technologies (iPhones, Facebook, etc.) are themselves merely products of a certain way of thinking, and therefore that while the problems identified with those technologies are true, the real problems inhere not in the technologies themselves but in the ways of thinking that produced them.