In questions about the negative effects of various technologies, the real question we should be asking isn’t whether it can be used for good or ill.
If there’s one thing the internet is overstocked with right now, it’s articles on the negative side-effects of technology. It seems that at least once or twice a week, another article makes the rounds pointing out some new unintended consequence of our technology. We read them, and become aware of things that should have been obvious all along: the internet has severely diminished tour attention span; smartphones actually make us pretty dumb; Twitter enables narcissism; etc.
Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), they all seem to come to the same conclusion, or at least share the same basic assumption, which is: it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it. In other words, the tool is neutral – we can put that tool to good purposes or bad purposes, so all we have to do is make sure we’re using them properly. Yes, Twitter can encourage narcissism, but only if you let it. Yes, smartphones and the internet are dumbing down society, but only because we haven’t been pointing them toward educational purposes well enough. This assumption views technology as a sort of ecosystem – we just need to keep an eye on it to make sure everything stays balanced. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away; blessed be the name of technology.
I don’t have much patience for that assumption. It is reminiscent of the sort of therapeutic deism that so often passes for religion these days: it offers all of the reassurance that we’re thinking seriously and maturely about these things, without any of the discomfort of actually having to significantly change our behavior.
So we nod sagely at each new report, agree as the author concludes that we just need to figure out how to use these new technologies for good and not ill, and then promptly return to using them exactly as we did before, confident that we, at any rate, are using them correctly, even if the rest of society hasn’t figured it out yet.
I should perhaps soften up a bit – it’s at least half-true that one can use certain technologies for better purposes or worse. But I worry that by constantly focusing on this half-truth we are beginning to believe it to be the whole truth, the only thing to be said about technology. So instead of the “technology is a neutral tool to be used for good or evil” view, I’d like to posit a different one: It’s not how you use the tool, it’s why the tool exists in the first place.
Part of the confusion comes, I think, from our propensity to talk about technologies (plural) as if they were just some conglomeration of gadgets, all loosely sharing the common theme of being new and owing their existence to the more recent advances in computer engineering.
As much as I hate to get all philosophical and make everything into an abstract concept (that’s a lie, I love it), perhaps we should think about technology not as a bunch of gadgets, but a way of thinking.
That’s what so many of these warnings about technology seem to miss; that the specific instances of technologies (iPhones, Facebook, etc.) are themselves merely products of a certain way of thinking, and therefore that while the problems identified with those technologies are true, the real problems inhere not in the technologies themselves but in the ways of thinking that produced them.
What I mean is: you can talk all you want about the dangers of technological gadgets; but unless you’re also talking about the dangers of technological thinking you’re not going to fix anything. It isn’t just how we’re using these new technologies, it’s the fact that we’re using them in the first place.
There are more than a few assumptions in modern man’s wholesale pursuit of new technologies that often go unquestioned – assumptions about the goodness of man’s desire to control the natural world around him, and about whether man is not himself an inherently technological being.
Until we think well about those assumptions, we won’t be capable of using our technologies well.
G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the sight of a rhinoceros ought to inspire wonder in us, wonder that such a ridiculous looking being actually exists. What was meant by this witticism was that we ought never to take the existence of a thing for granted, as if it was inevitable or necessary. When faced with the sight of something as odd as a rhinoceros, we ought to ask ourselves “Why does this exist, and in such a funny shape?” Similarly, when faced with the sight of something as odd as Twitter, we ought to ask ourselves: Why does this exist? And why, instead of pondering this existential question, are most of its users simply debating the proper and improper ends to which it can be put? What does it say about us as a society that our ninth most visited website is not, say, a forum where people can donate money to directly aid victims of war-torn countries in Africa, but a forum where we can announce to both friends and strangers exactly what we’re doing and how we’re feeling about life?
For we should never assume that our technologies were inevitable or necessary. They did not spring to existence out of some natural necessity; they were created by us, and created in our image. Man fashioned them out of the dust of the earth and breathed life into them, and at no point was the fashioning accidental or without purpose. No evolutionary theory of natural selection will account for the fact that Twitter exists, or that it exists in the way it does rather than in some other way. It wasn’t a series of random genetic mutations in the computer code that produced a 140 character limit instead of a 140 word limit; it was the fact that our society doesn’t generally have the inclination to process anything longer. Does Twitter encourage narcissism? Sure, but the only reason Twitter exists is because we were narcissists to begin with.
It’s no use dreaming these technologies will just go away. Since Neolithic man formed some crude farm implements for himself, we’ve been using technology, and there’s no reason to think that we’re ever going to, or even should want to, stop using them. But we can encourage ways of thinking that will, in the future, change the direction of our technological development. We can question the democratic, individualistic assumptions that made our current technologies so juvenile. We can start arguing that nature is not just a mass of raw material, waiting to be used by us humans for whatever purposes we see fit. We can live our lives in such a way so as to demonstrate that the really good things in life are those things which are given to us, not made by us. We can actively affirm the truth that life is best experienced in the flesh, not mediated through a screen.
My guess is that if we all started living out those assumptions, the headlong rush into greater and greater technological depths (which everyone seems vaguely worried about but no one seems really interested in slowing) would be gradually arrested. Only then will we be able to properly use technology for truly human ends.
Ben Garner is an expatriate Texan sojourning in the land of Virginia. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, an employee of Mars Hill Audio, an occasional political theorist, and an amateur choral singer.