Prometheus tortured for giving humans fire.
Haters of technology extend back to the origins of society.
The god Prometheus bestowed fire into the hands of mortals, and Zeus punished him by binding him to a boulder, impaling him and allowing the birds and nature to peck at him for eternity. Since he was immortal, not even the narcotic death could save him.
Greek mythology represents perhaps the earliest attack on technology. The power of fire's primitive technology produced bad mortals, according to Zeus. Human beings characterized in this manner lack the intelligence and ethics to handle technology. It would make life too easy for mortals and therefore was labeled evil. In order to learn, humans in this world view needed a hard life because of moral and intellectual weakness.
The idea is absurdly conservative and reactionary, but so tempting to buy into that it just will not die. Here, I will refute the idea regurgitated by The Wall Street Journal that technology is bad, and provide you with specific benefits to the individual and entire societies.
Bad technology may sound nonsensical to you, but the idea remains embedded in the collective unconscious, and anti-technology spokespeople are everywhere. Far from ignorant, detractors are often hyper intelligent, but in the end misguided in adhering to an idea grounded in mythology from millennia past. Programs such as "Digital Nation" by PBS examine the benefits and drawbacks of living in a technological world, with objectivity, but resistance remains.
The Wall Street Journal picked up the ancient idea recently, but they are far from the first in modern times. You cantrace this most recent thread of the argument to Nicholas Carr, who published "Is Google Making Us Stupid" in The Atlantic Monthly in July of 2008, answering the title question in the affirmative. His story raised the paranoid heads of people in the U.S., fearing that our minds were wasting away, the result of ominous technology.
Carr contended then that the internet in general was dumbing the population, physically changing our brains so that we think with less complexity. The country was outraged that technology was stifling intelligent thinking. Carr revived the ancient issue and made it mainstream news. Imagine the scandal: Google alters neural pathways, restricting our ability to think! The article wasn't even about Google specifically, but internet technologies.
In an unfortunate pseudo-scientific follow-up study, Science in 2011 revealed that Carr's "Google Effect" was a reality. As if the internet were horrifically negative, they stated that "sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger." So, "the Google Effect," in fact, reduced our intelligence.
The study was outdated since the Pew Research Center released a study in 2010, citing top scholars in cognitive science who stated that the small negative effects were trumped by positives such as massive, accessible, and free information.
The WSJ's "Is Smart Making Us Dumb?" by Evgeny Morozov on February 23, 2013 (a title swiped from Carr, merely using synonyms) rehashes the tired idea with reference to "smart technologies:"
These objects are no longer just dumb, passive matter. With some help from crowdsourcing or artificial intelligence, they can be taught to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behavior (between recycling and throwing stuff away, for example) and then punish or reward us accordingly—in real time.
While the technologies are growing smarter, Morozov suggests, the smart machines now direct our behavior by making decisions for us. In the case of the "SmartBin," sensors in the garbage can remind the owner when to recycle. The intelligence in the technology robs the individual of choice.
Morovoz falls in line with generations that believed the car, telephone, and radio were bringing about armageddon. Think I am exaggerating? In the case of the car, people longed for the intimacy of the open air, connection with the animals, the enjoyment of the journey, the exercise involved. The telephone was supposed to have destroyed social relationships because of diminished face to face interaction (sound familiar?) and letter writing. Yet, all along the way, innovators have proven that "Technology fundamentally serves to expand and enhance human capabilities and conveniences."
To say that we are loosing our freedom with smart technology is narrow minded when one considers the overall benefits of machines that make our life easier, more social, and intensely stimulating. But, according to Morozov the benefits are the problem, as the "new breed of so-called smart technologies" are damaging. He levels his sarcastic tone specifically against: Google glasses and vehicle technologies, Facebook, the SmartBin, Disney car rides, and Smart Kitchens.
Morozov extends his accusations against institutions and regions, numbering on his list Silicon Valley in addition to Apple , Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Disney. He excludes, for some reason, both Microsoft and LinkedIn, which is the only one of the Big 4 social media platforms not mentioned.
The smart machines such as pill bottles that remind about medicine and forks that decide when one has had enough, he claims, are robbing us of our individualism and ability to make decisions.
He completely overlooks the positives as he narrow mindedly attacks technology (I'm surprised he didn't refer to them as robots). For example, did he consider the people who need medicine are sick and elderly people who might have a difficult time remembering to pop the pills? He certainly didn't consider the health problem of obesity in the U.S. when he bashes a fork that might assist in shedding some weight. The reality is smart tech makes us smarter, freeing our minds to focus on complex tasks rather than the mundane.
Morozov sees a snag here, however, because we need the mundane and tedious in order to appreciate the enjoyable and the stimulating. He claims that the devices feed our lower level thinking. Free people equal the good and smart technology is bad.
To suggest that technology feeds lower level thinking is absurd. When he suggests that we can no longer problem solve on our own, he is talking about lower level tasks, not diminished thinking. Is recycling higher level thinking task that we should spend more time deliberating on?
Morozov says yes, but clearing our minds of small, sometimes trivial decisions empowers our brains to focus on our day's work, family needs, and mental health. He claims that they "push ... to behave better," and that this smacks of "social engineering disguised as product engineering." However, the enlightened see societal changes as the product of groups of people functioning together, not a technology. If it is social engineering, there must be an agenda, and the only one he points to is that tech makes our lives easier.
With the tone of a journalist who has uncovered a story on genocide, he rips Google officer, Patrick Pichette, who told an Australian audience that Google "is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place." Morozov sees a problem with this because his world is not broken, and if it were, he doesn't want a machine to fix it. If only the whole world lived in his Disneyland! Human evolution programmed us to use tools and technology to fix what is broken.
Smart technology extends beyond tablets and phones.
In what amounts to his most inane argument, Morozov states that we need to distinguish between "good smart" and "bad smart." I don't even need to attack this silly idea that composes the crux of his argument. Try not to laugh at his claim that the BinCam (recycling reminder) is "somewhere between good smart and bad smart." It seems that, in his effort to abandon technology, he intends to abandon scientific method altogether, resorting to measurements that can fall somewhere along a spectrum from benign to evil.
The argument is fundamentally in error, and he hinges it upon our autonomy, the ability to be an individual making independent decisions. Morozov also depends on the tired idea that we need opposition in our lives in order to truly feel happiness. He seems to believe that technology will actually rid the world of all its problems.
Morozov refers to a virtual world the technology is imposing on us maliciously, with the intent to fix our "broken world." He targets the TED Talk by Jane McGonigal, because she concludes that flaws "can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame." Take a look at the offensive video:
I'm sure he would object as well to these scientific studies that point to the good of video games: "New research: Video games can train for empathy," and "Video games can rock your brain [video & review]." He takes the easy route of blindly attacking virtual worlds because they make the world too easyl:
It's great when the things around us run smoothly, but it's even better when they don't do so by default. ... it will be hard to resist the allure of a frictionless, problem-free future. When Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, says that "people will spend less time trying to get technology to work…because it will just be seamless,"
You read that right. He claims that fighting to make our computers and devices work properly is a good problem. In other words, humans need to spend more time getting technology to function properly because we need to struggle and confront adversity.
I suggest that he look to serious adversity outside his tiny bubble and note the tired, poor, and hungry around the world, who might like just a little more time to consider important problems other than food and shelter. He might contend that machines that help these people are "good smart." Even someone with the reduced intelligence caused by technology can see that we need "bad smart" in order to arrive at "good smart."
He concludes with beautiful language containing the ridiculous idea that our lives are less rich because of the smart tech that frees us from decisions and problems, reducing the:
complexity and richness of the lived human experience—with its gaps, challenges and conflicts
Technology can equal the best in human experience, and I counter Morozov with resources that point to the miraculous advances made by technology and the difficulty inherent in separating good and bad. I think you'll find these sources engaging and persuasive:
Ray Kurzweil in this video persuades through knowledge and objectivity, foreseeing a future dominated by technology, but without judging it. Kurzweil speaks with the power of grounded knowledge.
I have mentioned the benefits of smart technology elsewhere, and I draw from that to conclude with a list of the empowering nature of technologies to:
By Darin L. Hammond
Writer for ZipMinis and owns ZipMinis Freelance Writing.
Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati
BC Blog, and Social Media Today.