Guest column: Blinded by technology’s benefits
The author of the book ‘Voluntary Enslavement: Technology’s Fast Development Reduces Diversity and Freedom’ discusses the three basic trade-offs of technology use and some of their unintended effects
Since World War II, the rapid acceleration of technology’s development has been staggering, and generally considered beneficial. As entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, engineers, politicians, administrators, and consumers we benefit in many ways from technology’s progress. The obvious advantages are a powerful catalyst for further investment and research into technology, which then spurs new and faster cycles of creation and consumption.
Increased food security, health and longevity; the ease and speed of transport, recording information and sharing it; all the material comforts gained … these are key advantages. But, to create such an advantage, something else must be sacrificed – in other words, the advantage is one side of a trade-off.
When we use the technology ‘axe’ or ‘chain saw’ to cut down a tree for construction material or firewood, that tree is no longer available as a habitat and food source for other life-forms, it no longer contributes to soil quality or the micro-climate it was part of and helped create, or it can no longer help stem soil erosion. These trade-offs do not present a problem when we cut down a few trees, but they becomes one when we clear-cut entire landscapes.
Similarly, as the powers of our technologies become more far-reaching, the related trade-offs become more far-reaching as well, creating unintended effects. Regarding the above mentioned advantages of our technology use, these effects include overpopulation and overuse of natural resources, ever rising energy needs, environmental pollution and degradation, human caused species extinction, lifestyle diseases, increasingly powerful means of monitoring and control by governments and corporations, etc.
A consensus developed regarding unintended effects like those just listed. They are recognized as problematic developments. Yet regarding effects that impact our humanity’s essence, there is little awareness. Below are three basic trade-offs concerning the human experience as well as examples of resulting unintended consequences.
Basic human resources
Our basic human resources are the prerequisites for us to accomplish something. For instance, the time and attention that a task requires, our curiosity and creativity, our ability to analyze and to cooperate, or the energies and enthusiasm we can muster for reaching a goal.
The trade-off: The more of our basic human resources that are absorbed by technology invention and use, the less of those resources are available for all things not technology.
The time we spend on social networks is time we don’t have to be outdoors and active, to meet up with someone, to cook a meal, read a book, or to play a music instrument. Another example is the creativity and cooperation that go into making a new drug. These resources are then not available for non-technological solutions to the problem in question. In the case of diabetes this could mean using our creativity and cooperation to figure out how to change eating habits and availability of certain foods, or create effective educational solutions.
The unintended effect: By focusing more of our human resources on technology, we increasingly become technological beings. So far, we humans have seen ourselves to be about more than just technology. That we are technological beings is one aspect of our humanity. We are also social, cultural, and spiritual beings, and are intelligent in more ways than creating and using technology. The more we focus on technology, the more we trade off the role of other defining human aspects in favor of technology’s role.
This basic trade-off is related to the above one, but concerns the diversity of human cultures rather than how diverse a culture or a human life is. How a culture addresses life’s challenges depends on many things, like the available materials within its geography, its social organization, language and the related way of thinking, experiences (record keeping), or values and beliefs. The great variety of human cultures – e.g. the respective expressions of art or music, literature, festivals, ceremonies, spiritual/religious views, cuisines, architecture, or fashion – is a colorful and enriching feature of our species’ existence.
The trade-off: Advanced technology is science-based and therefore, in principal, objective. The more our cultures saturate themselves with technology, the less (cultural) subjectivity there is.
The unintended effect: The more we submit to technology’s evolutionary logic, the less our human cultures will be able to retain their distinctness and will therefore become increasingly alike. Technology’s evolution must only heed efficiency and functionality. These two criteria are based on the universal rules of physics and chemistry and are therefore objective. Culture is not objective; it is made of up of a myriad of idiosyncrasies. We can see how cultures are becoming more alike by how people dress, what they eat or read, the music listened to, or holidays celebrated. This, of course, has to do with globalization, which in turn has to do with technology.
Degree of freedom
The third example of a basic trade-off in our relationship with technology relates to the above one. It is also an expression of technology’s objective nature and how it reaches further into human lives. What is looked at here is how technology’s increasing supremacy influences our human degree of freedom.
The trade-off: Human societies are systems. As more able technology permeates these systems, human life becomes more submitted to technological efficiency (objectivity) and observability, and so the less variety and delineation there is.
The unintended effect: As more aspects of our lives are enabled and defined by technology, they become more standardized and transparent, lessening our degree of freedom. Standardization leads to fewer options, and therefore, less choice and independence. As our lives become more transparent, we are subjected to diminished privacy and more control.
These tendencies are noticeable through our information and communication technologies. The power that companies like Microsoft or Google have is a reflection of their technologies becoming standard. Currently, we are not too concerned with corporations and governments channeling our lives and gaining access to our thoughts and activities. But this apparent composure may be a sign of how dependent we have already become.
If diversity and freedom are seen as valuable aspects of the human experience, then the basic trade-offs of fast and indiscriminate technological development must be considered. We all are called to think of how we can keep technology from flooding and completely defining our lives by being far more conscious and deliberate in our technology use.
James Heim graduated from the University of Zurich and has worked with a Swiss foundation to bring technology companies to Switzerland. His work in this field, along with his close connection to nature, informed the research for his book