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How much technology is too much?

21 December 2019

How much technology is too much?

First, let me define what I mean by technology. I’ll take a broader view than today’s commonly-understood limitation of “technology” to “things that use computers”. I use the literal definition of any application of skill and knowledge to the accomplishment of an objective.

My first stab at this is that tech turns from being helpful to harmful when we turn over our agency, our capacity to make our own choices. Doing so destroys our ability to be ourselves. We become less capable people. Even further, we become more like the robots we say we fear by thinking, feeling, and saying only the things that computers tell us to think, feel, or say.

We shouldn’t depend on technology for sensemaking. To exercise agency, you first need to know what the hell is going on in the first place. It’s something that we need to do for ourselves. No more Googling what the meaning of life is! You’re basically handing them the keys to your sovereignty at that point.

We shouldn’t depend on technology to tell us what to do. An example is depending on algorithms to select our media for us. We’re just passively consuming whatever is put in front of us, rather than carefully selecting what we put in our minds. It’s like the difference between eating whatever is convenient instead of selecting your food based on its nutritional value. Doing the former will likely lead to sickness, the latter to health.

Nor should we use technology as an excuse to hide behind when things go wrong. It’s as pathetic as the boss blaming the intern for a mistake. There’s a person behind everything, and someone decided to use the technology to solve a problem in the first place. If their decision didn’t turn out well, they should be held accountable.

We shouldn’t use tech to distract ourselves. When you get bored, your mind wanders. You come up with new ideas and solutions to nagging problems. When you whip out your smartphone at the slightest hint of boredom you’re training yourself to be unable to tolerate discomfort. You are also stuffing your head with other people’s ideas without giving any space for your own to come through. We cam also distract ourselves from solving the problems we know we need to solve, but don’t want to.

Tech shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for face-to-face interactions. It can help facilitate existing ones, and be a screening ground for new ones. But let’s not pretend having a digital conversation with someone is better than having a real one.

Finally, tech shouldn’t be viewed as a way to avoid acting with virtue or character. See: comments sections and social media. People say things to others behind the comfort of their screens that they’d never say to their face.

So, what should we use technology for?

We should use it for doing repetitive tasks. Humans weren’t made to turn widgets all day. In fact, doing things faster is kind of the whole point of technology, isn’t it? Technology without the end goal of increasing human capacity is just another word for art. It’s not that you can’t find beauty in technology. You certainly can. Technology can be more pleasant to use when it is beautiful. But beauty isn’t its primary role.

We should use tech to use our resources more judiciously. We only have one planet. We also all only have twenty-four hours each day.

It’s fine to use technology as a tool for creative expression. In fact, that’s probably the best use for it. A lot of the harm that technology brings today is that it facilitates excessive consumption. When you use tech to create, you’re not consuming. The tech then becomes not an impediment to your real life but a tool for self-actualization.