The shaping force of technology

There are few people who absolutely hate or absolutely love technology. Most of us fall between the two extremes, and at this time in history, we’re participating in a grand experiment concerning how technology will exist in our lives. How much privacy are we willing to relinquish? How much technology will we wear? Where will technology take human interaction?

What I’d like to know more about is technology’s inevitability. Do we control it, or does it control us?

Tim Wu has been on a tear writing about how technology shapes society. Here’s an excerpt from his recent piece:

The choice between demanding and easy technologies may be crucial to what we have called technological evolution. We are, as I argued in my most recent piece in this series, self-evolving. We make ourselves into what we, as a species, will become, mainly through our choices as consumers. If you accept these premises, our choice of technological tools becomes all-important; by the logic of biological atrophy, our unused skills and capacities tend to melt away, like the tail of an ape. It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.

He goes on to ask if “convenience technologies” are making our lives more convenient. He concludes that they’re not. Instead, they’re turning a few difficult tasks into a multitude of easy ones. Technology is supposed to give us more time to do what’s important, but sometimes the things that are important become the discarded:

The risks of biological atrophy are even more important. Convenience technologies supposedly free us to focus on what matters, but sometimes the part that matters is what gets eliminated. Everyone knows that it is easier to drive to the top of a mountain than to hike; the views may be the same, but the feeling never is. By the same logic, we may evolve into creatures that can do more but find that what we do has somehow been robbed of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.

How desirable is a future where technology makes everything easy?

The power/curse of technology

In part II of his series on technological evolution, Tim Wu writes about the Oji-Cree people [HT: The Dish]:

… taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.”

As the 1960s approached, so did the quick spread of technology in the Oji-Cree’s harsh region. Now they’re a different people:

The good news is that, nowadays, the Oji-Cree no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times.

[…]

 But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.

It’s too early to be completely pro or con in relation to technology’s effect on society. Awareness of the good technology can afford us, as well as the bad, should fill us with what I’d call “optimistic caution.”

Technological evolution is occurring at an extremely rapid pace, and the advancement should be viewed in the same way as a weapon: When used correctly, it has the ability to help and protect many people; when used incorrectly, the result can be disastrous.