Technology is about people not tools

That technology impacts every area of our lives from the way we meet to how we learn and work hardly needs to be said.

From innovations such as a zero liquid discharge that oxidizes and evaporates sewage to apps that regulate our bodies; the crowdsourcing of fundingnews or health, the benefits are well documented and generally embraced.

But it’s the insidious colonization by technology of daily life that is polarising people into camps of for or against it.

The stories are endless: parents pushing swings on the one hand while emailing with the other, kids gaming after-school-at-dinner-before-bed-as-soon-as-they-wake-up, or partners competing with the ubiquitous 3rd party in modern relationships – the smartphone.

The ferocity with which we have been swept up has left us spluttering. There’s been the full spectrum of reaction from evangelists to finger-pointers who blame technology for everything from distraction, to addiction and isolation.

In The Shallows Carr cautions that technology is altering not just what we think about but how, modifying the structure of our brains and we need to keep a close eye on what’s happening there.

There’s a paradox – technology creates connection but can also create isolation. Commentators like Dr Sheryl Turkle are calling for us to slow things down now to ensure we are not drawn away from real life connections. I am not sure it’s possible to slow technology down, but we can become more mindful about our choices.

But I wonder, with respect to human behaviour, how much has really changed?

If we took the word ‘technology’ out of today’s debate could we replace it with just as many other changes that in the past we feared would bring about social demise?

For example, we love distractions.

The balls and gaming tables of old have morphed into nightclubs and after work stops at the pub. Radio? Television? The soap opera or its antecedent: gossip? Only the tools have changed.

“The world is too much with us, late and soon,” Wordsworth lamented, “[g]etting and spending, we lay waste our powers/little we see in Nature that is ours/we have given our hearts away.”  That was the 1700s.

Humans tend to avoid themselves. We seek out  things that make us feel good. We are simultaneously creative and destructive, progressive and regressive.

It’s important to look at the potential ills of technology, but all-or-nothing solutions have seldom worked.

Alcohol? Lest we forget the prohibition. Rock ‘n roll? They may have smashed the records in ’58 but the music lives on.

We need to talk about technology collectively and manage its implications both collectively and as individuals.

Where there is no harm to others it’s up to us to decide how we let it affect our lives. We do need research that helps us understand what’s going on and there’s heaps of it under development. And of course we need strong laws that prevent monopolies or other abuses of power.

But wait: self, others, individual vs human rights, families, societies, governments… Are these same tensions not echoed through philosophical debates from Confucius to Rousseau and Bentham,  Stringer? Shirky‘s SOPA address?

I agree with Turkel that the Internet is in its infancy. I doubt anyone knows what the world will look like in ten years time. That we need to manage our relationship with it is certain, less so, that it is the cause of our ills.

Progress is a double-edged sword that brings with it losses and gains. Like most choices: one thing for another; and any decision we make (shall I read my novel or write this blog?) causes some post-decision dissonance.

It’s probably inevitable that technology will have its Three Mile Island . It worries me that hackers crack even sophisticated security systems and I get anxious at talk of cyber war.

I see this as even more reason to engage, to experiment and adapt, to make mistakes from which I hope I will learn, the learnings of which might support others.

Arguably (although I say this strictly as a layperson and not a neuroscientist) the re-patterning of our brains is adaptive? We may know only in retrospect.

But the potential is boggling.

At what other time in history have you been able to log onto an open culture site and take courses in anything from physics to Latin from the top universities in the world – for free? Access a database of world art at Artsy? Hear rare recording of icons like Florence Nightingale?

There are genius curators like Maria Popova integrating ‘art, design, science, technology, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, you-name-itology…that enrich your mental pool of resources and empower you to combine them into original concepts that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful’.

Then there are emerging voices such as those of digital ethnographer Venessa Miemis who believes social media could help transform us into a more deeply connected and collaborative world.  Zittrain likewise implies an almost spiritual dimension.

Gamification may turn out to be the Pied Piper of work and education or if the likes of doctors Jane McGonigal andJason Fox are right, its Joan of Arc.

In contemplating this future I have neither more insight nor foresight than others, but I feel that while the technology is new, the challenges we face in dealing with it have always been with us.

And since we are living as Peter Diamandis says in the least violent, most educated, richest period in history, from this (hopefully realistic) optimist I say: so far, so good.

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