Technology is a Choice
I have a confession to make: I’m not really very techie. I still read books on paper and don’t see myself getting a Kindle. I only recently picked up an iPad and I have absolutely no idea what to do with Instagram or Pinterest.
That may be surprising, especially coming from a “Digital Tonto,” but to be honest, a lot of technology, just like a lot of TV shows, radio stations and books, is a waste of time for me.
The reason that I don’t feel the need to immediately dive into every new gadget is precisely because I’m getting so much out of the technology I do use. That’s why I am bewildered that so many so-called “intellectuals” denigrate technology under the guise of a mistaken sense of cultural superiority. It’s not technology they undermine, but the human spirit.
(Mis)Remberance of Things Past
The debate erupted last spring under the guise of faux concern about the Internet dulling our intellectual capacities. Nicholas Carr asserted that the Internet is making us scatterbrained and hindering our ability to focus. For his part, NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller worried that we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud.
More recently, the Atlantic fretted that Facebook is making us lonely and MIT’s Sherry Turkle worried that all of the mindless online chatter is making us unable to hold a conversation and Joe Kraus worries that we are over-distracted.
First the Internet made us stupid, now it’s making us dull. What’s next? Celibacy?
We all like to harken back to earlier days, when things were simpler and somehow wiser. However, as Matt Ridley points out in his book, The Rational Optimist , our nostalgia is often misplaced. He describes a sweet bucolic scene of centuries past in which a family sat together, read the bible, ate basic food and enjoyed chaste, natural pleasures.
He then retorts:
Oh please! … Father’s scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire – 53 (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbors’ lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to the orphanage. The stew is grey and grisly, yet meat is a rare change from the gruel; there is no fruit or salad this season…
While it’s understandable that many are sentimental about an idealized past, it becomes pernicious when those romantic notions become a basis for discounting the present and the future. Our lives are getting better with every generation and technology deserves most of the credit.
Technology Makes us Smarter
While many like to postulate that technology is rotting our brains, there is very little evidence that it’s true. In fact, empirical research points to exactly the opposite conclusion. Our IQ’s are actually rising – a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect.
Moreover, as Steven Johnson argues in his book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, technology has made media itself more worthwhile. When we can rewind on DVD or VOD, plots can be more complex. Interactive games, for their part, are surely more stimulating than passive entertainment.
The truth is that technology does things that we’re very bad at, like algorithmic calculation. We’re much better at pattern recognition, a skill that psychologists call chunking. Chess masters, for instance, have no better memories than the rest of us, but can remember entire games in context.
So we’re not so much uploading our brains to the cloud as we are outsourcing things we’re not good at, which allows up do spend more time and energy on things we are good at, like creative thinking.
Technology Makes Us Richer
As I mentioned above, I only recently bought an iPad and it’s much better than the one I could’ve bought two years ago for the same price. Another will come out next year that is much better than the one that I bought and a bunch of competitors will have great ones that are even cheaper.
Surprised? Of course not! We’ve come to expect things to improve and cost less because technology enables us to be more productive with less effort. A recent Economist report touts a third industrial revolution where manufacturing comes back to developed countries because automation is replacing much of what manual labor used to do.
Of course, the chattering classes will then lament the loss of the opportunity for people to do backbreaking, mind-numbing jobs (presumably because they’ve never done one) and once again completely miss the point. The same technologies (i.e. additive manufacturing and robotics) create new, high value-added jobs that pay more.
Moreover, those same technologies allow for products that are not only better, but also more customized, so we get more use and enjoyment out of them at lower cost. The increased productivity creates wealth which drives demand for new products and services which creates more still more jobs, which creates more demand and…well you get the idea.
Technology Makes us More Connected
None of this, of course, rebuts Sherry Turkle’s basic argument that technology can’t replace human contact. Should it? Why would we need anything to replace human contact? We have plenty of humans for that!
Just as IV tubes are a poor substitute for eating, social media is a poor replacement for face-to-face conversations. What would be the fun in going out with friends to stick a tube in your arm? However, that’s obviously not what we use IV tubes for. We use them in the hospital when we are unable to scarf down burgers.
Whitney Johnson wrote an excellent HBR post about the “jobs” she hires social media for. She includes things like they help her connect to people professionally, stay in touch with people she likes but whose lives don’t intersect with hers at the moment and help her meet new people she wouldn’t have otherwise (like me, and I’m eternally grateful:-)
Nowhere does she mention intimacy, nor should she. Technology helps us connect in ways that we couldn’t before. In my own case, I’ve spent a good part of my life in some pretty out of the way places and social media (Skype especially) has been a godsend.
Listening to people fret about it seems more than ridiculous (and poorly substantiated). It’s hard hearted. Not everyone lives in an urban center or even in the first world.
The Power to Choose
So, back to Instagram and Pinterest. I don’t use them and probably never will.
Why? Because I’m really not into pictures and I never was. Other people are and love photo apps. Some people spend hours playing World of Warcraft, others sit glued to the TV, while still others go to fancy cocktail parties and bemoan the demise of intelligent conversation.
The point is that these things are choices and technology empowers us to make more of the ones that feel right for us. Technology doesn’t close doors, it opens them. You either want to walk through or you don’t.
That’s why all of the hand wringing is not only misguided, it’s immoral. It makes value distinctions about lifestyle choices with absolutely no evidence that any real harm is being done and a wealth of evidence to the contrary. The fact that these views are presented in a patronizing, superior tone doesn’t make them any more valid.
As technology advances, so does our power to choose. That’s why it’s called progress.