Technology is just a tool

Technology is just a tool June 10, 2014

I’VE BEEN ENJOYING A NEW SERIES ON HBO, “Silicon Valley.” It is produced by Mike Judge, the man who made the 1999 cult hit “Office Space.”

A running gag on the show is the conceit among the titans of tech that their inventions are “making the world a better place.” This idea ought to resonate not just with techies, but with all of us. The idea that technological progress is synonymous with human progress pervades American discourse — but while this idea can be (and is) taken to absurd and even utopian extremes, it is also not exactly nonsense.

Consider: In the last 100 years, electricity has transformed domestic life. In the days of washboards, wringers and clotheslines, doing laundry could mean hours of work. Add to that the task of cleaning a house without the benefit of modern appliances like vacuum cleaners, electric floor buffers and automatic dishwashers, and pretty quickly you are looking at more hours of daily work.

The invention and, after the disruptions of the Great Depression and World War II, wide availability of those previously mentioned appliances meant that tasks that once took hours of work by (usually) women — housewives or the domestic servants of the wealthy — were now done in a matter of minutes.

This had a transformative effect on American society. Large numbers of women could now advance their educations and enter the paid workforce. The resulting economic power provided women with unprecedented leverage in their homes. When men were the bread winners, it seemed natural that they would be the ones to manage the economic affairs of the household as well. Once women were free to enter the workforce, the result was decades of social upheaval, and we are still experiencing echoes of that transformation today.

So, I am in no way denying that technology can make the world a better place, nor that it can be socially transformative. That said, there is a tendency in America, and especially in Silicon Valley, to assign an almost spiritual significance to technology that is at best naïve, and at worst utopian (and sometimes worryingly undemocratic and authoritarian — I’ll probably write more about that in a future post).

It is worth reflecting on what exactly we’re talking about when we discuss “technology.” Wikipedia gives a good working definition:

“Technology (from Greek τέχνη, techne, ‘art, skill, cunning of hand’; and -λογία, -logia) is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a pre-existing solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.”

So, technology is just our means and methods of solving problems. By this definition, both a hammer and an oil refinery are technology — hammers drive nails, and refineries take the sulfurous gunk that is crude oil and make it into gasoline, motor oil, plastics and so forth. Both can do good things: hammers can build a school, and jet fuel can power a cargo plane bringing relief to victims of a famine or flood. Both can do bad things: a hammer can be used as a weapon in the commission of a crime, and refineries can produce one of the more dreadful weapons of modern warfare: napalm.

Dr. Martin Luther King can be of help here:

Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: ‘Improved means to an unimproved end.’ This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the ‘without’ of man’s nature subjugates the ‘within,’ dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.


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