Choose wisely

I just finished a fantastic book entitled What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. In it, Kelly makes the argument we should “choose technologies that would bless (us) with greater benefits and fewer demands.”

This is intriguing to me because I rarely look at technology in this way. Most often, I view technology as simply “good” or “helpful,” and fail to think through all the ramifications a new gadget could produce.

I have begun thinking about how technology shapes my life. How it gets me to do some things and not others. More specifically, I find it intriguing trying to process the ins and outs of its effects.

In his book, Kelly spend a lot of time explaining the Amish people’s philosophy toward technology, and his conclusions are surprising. Basically, the Amish communities are approximately fifty years behind the rest of contemporary culture in terms how they utilize tools and gadgets. Since every Amish community across America varies widely regarding their religious, political, and technological philosophies, it’s hard to generalize how they all feel on any matter, but it seems Kelly is well-versed on how they incorporate new (or newer) devices into their lives.

One of the reasons the Amish are behind the rest of society in terms of technology is because they are on the completely opposite side of the early adopter spectrum. They sit back and watch to see which technologies truly help, and which cause more problems. There are also concerns about staying off the grid, and, to paraphrase the words of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, not allowing the things they own to end up owning them.

This is an important concept to think about with what I’m going to say next: there’s no way we’re going to slow down technological advancement. We should certainly talk about how careful we need to be with what we’re creating and how it’s affecting us, but advancement will not slow down — at least — not anytime in the near future.

So what can we do? It seems we need to accept the rapidly changing face of technology, understand its potential for good and evil, and shape it the best we can without letting it shape us.

Here’s a practical and fairly innocuous example. When I was young, I loved video games. I played all the popular Nintendo classics just like everyone else. As I grew older, I still held a nostalgic affinity for these games, but to a certain extent — as Paul would say — I put away childish things.

Before I go on, I must say I am very impressed with how the Nintendo Wii has revolutionized game playing, as well as the PS3 Move and the Xbox Kinect. These inventions have made video games more communal and active, and there’s a lot of good to come from that.

But think about the time wasted when adults spend too much time on their video game consoles and/or computers. Think about the relationships strained. Think about the creativity that is abandoned. I see young people lost in games such as Call of Duty and Halo and witness the unfortunate beginnings of a struggle these children will have with games for the rest of their lives.

I feel the struggle. Since I have an iPhone, the temptation to play Angry Birds is ever-present. Unfortunately, with the increase in technology, there comes no increase in time. Some technologies save us time, but often I find myself spending more hours figuring out how to do something I could already do, but now in a more advanced way. In other words, companies in Silicon Valley are really good at getting us to perform tasks we don’t really need to accomplish, or that we did just fine before.

I’ve focused on video games in this post because they seem to be the most conspicuous culprit in all of this. Like most things, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them (except for Grand Theft Auto and the like). It’s how this entertainment changes us. It’s what it wants from us.

It wants our time. It wants to be carried around in our pocket. It wants to be an extension of ourselves. This isn’t just games I’m talking about, it’s cell phones and iPads. It’s Wi-Fi and 4G. We’re not just entering, but already in, a world where technology is another limb. Maybe even a sixth sense. I mean, according to Xbox, you can be the controller now.

I’m not talking doom and gloom here. I’m not going to start ranting about our future looking like The Terminator or The Matrix. It’s just technology wants to be ubiquitous, and that’s exactly what it has accomplished. And it’s probably accomplished ubiquity a lot sooner than we think it did.

This is where I need to reiterate that we can shape technology and its effect on us. Yes, it’s growing and becoming an extension of us, but that can be used for good.

Technology provides choices. It helps pull nations out of poverty. It gives people more ways to communicate and spread resources. And as this video I’ve already posted shows, it helps level the playing field as far as quality of life is concerned.

I could make a very lengthy list about technology’s pros and cons, but I’m not because 1) that would take a lot of time, and 2) the most important thing to focus on (in this post) is how best to incorporate technology into our lives.

I said good-bye to Facebook a couple months ago. I let go of that popular form of technology. Part of me believes I just put off the inevitable. I mean, it’s quite possible email will fade away to be replaced with some Facebook/Twitter/text/instant messaging improvement that will make communication even more fast and informal. I put off texting for a long time and gave in a little over a year ago, so maybe I’ll crawl back to Facebook some day with my tail between my legs.

Then again, maybe not. I really feel it is imperative to choose my technologies wisely. As Kelly says:

As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others.

Yes, if technology is going to be adopted and become a “part of us,” then it should definitely maximize choices for everyone. It should provide more opportunities for education and deeper relationships (notice how I don’t say “more” relationships. I truly believe you can have room for 5,000 friends on Facebook, but there’s only room for maybe 50 in your life). It should stimulate economies and improve productivity. It should spread capitalism, while at the same time cultivating more diversity because different societies will be able to ship their own culturally important products to other parts of the world.

I’m going to end this post on a more personal scale:

We need to be cognizant of which technologies are good for us, and which aren’t. We need to embrace the right stuff, and not take on too much extraneous stuff.

Personally, I have a great desktop computer and laptop. I also have an iPhone and a Kindle device. I need to ask myself if buying an iPad at this point is worth it. Not only is it worth it financially, but do I even have enough time to use it when I have a wife and daughter I want to spend time with (I also want to read, write, create lesson plans, use the technology I already own, and spend time with my friends and family)?

If I’m being honest with myself, we’re probably both in agreement on the answer to that question.

P.S. I just reread this long post (maybe too long) and wanted to add I believe Facebook does add a lot of choices, which can make it an agent of good. At the same time, Facebook and other social networking sites have their downfalls, which I may discuss (Lord willing) in another post.