Questioning the Technological Takeover of Everything

Binary planetA few weeks ago I visited San Francisco, the tech capital of the world. My girlfriend and I decided it would be fun to ride bikes. Using the Yelp app, we found a bike rental place. Google Maps guided us straight to the door, just before closing time. An employee greeted us warmly. Luckily, there were two bikes left. Perfect.

Only– the entire rental system was online, and the employee couldn’t navigate the system to find the specific bikes. We fiddled around on the web, clicking, searching and refreshing pages. Thirty minutes of malfunction later, we finally cracked the code, rented the bikes, and rode off.

But the irony stuck with me: a bike shop, two bikes, two people with money unable to rent bikes. Sophisticated technology was not necessary for this transaction.

Last week, Southwest Airlines cancelled 1,150 flights in 24 hours due to computer malfunctions. A glitch caused errors in scheduling flight crews. Apparently no alternative scheduling mechanism was in place.

What caused the glitch? What causes a computer to randomly freeze? No one knows and usually it doesn’t matter– just reboot or update the software.

Except that the first fatality in a self-driving car just happened. According to the manufacturer Tesla, “Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

So where can we attribute blame for this kind of error? Tesla asserts that, even in autopilot, the driver retains responsibility for accidents. At this stage, the vehicle is “semi-autonomous,” and cannot be expected to detect everything. Now we know at least one blind spot. Trial and error.

Certainly– digital technology improves efficiency in many areas. With the internet, a world of information is at our fingertips. Communication channels are endless and instantaneous. Innovations like Uber and Airbnb are transforming sectors of the economy. Perhaps self-driving cars will make the road safer, and are a better societal investment than revamped public transportation.

But some sobriety is needed.

Digital technology is not a saving grace. People found bike shops before Google Maps. Planes flew before mobile check-ins. We shared photographs before Instagram. Friends and relatives kept in touch before Facebook. Political and social revolutions shook up the world before Twitter.

Our default to technological solutions is misguided. Handing tablet computers to crummy schools will not improve education. Online connectivity does not automatically enhance our communication, but often provides anonymous cover for hateful rhetoric. Internet access does not make us wiser. In a sea of information, the competing onslaught divides our attention, producing shallow bursts of thought. The most effective online political movement so far has been The Reality TV Show Host hijacking the Republican party.

My personal qualms with technological takeover of everything began with my very fist blog post in 2011, an essay titled The Watson Problem. Named after the IBM computer that is currently the closest thing to artificial intelligence we find in the marketplace.

My conclusion to the essay, and my continued qualm, is about the intentionality of our tech indulgence. Do we use our technology with a specific purpose in mind? Do we develop technology to solve a specific problem? Or rather, do we indulge blindly with what’s new and interesting and possible?

People often say new technologies are tools, like anything else. Yet often, tools supposedly for communication, entertainment, and information merely enslave us to devices and their updates. Craftily engineered behind the scenes to increase clicks and ad revenue. Our brains hooked on the dopamine rush.

As the world goes searching augmented reality for Pokemon characters, I would simply propose some perspective:

The more important functions of life we turn over to digital world, the more consequential the “glitch” or the “hack” will become. The more unconsciously we succumb to our devices, the less conscious we are of actual reality, the physical people in our presence, the physical environment which sustains us.

If our online communities don’t strengthen our real communities, if our social media doesn’t increase our empathy, if our innovations don’t lead to social progress, then what good is our flashy technology?

You’re right: this technology is not going away.

So don’t bow down to it. Use it with intention and mindfulness. Harness what builds life, meaning, and community. Chuck the rest.

At least, this my mantra. Some days are better than others.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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