Answering my own questions since 2001

Technology Ain’t Going to Solve All Our Problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about how our society views technology. I’ve been considering various aspects of how our society almost always turns to technology to solve what is often a cultural or social problem. This has led me on to a series of threads:

  • In his introduction to his book Technopoly, self-described technophobe Neil Postman describes how the Egyptian King Thamus once entertained the god, Theuth. Theuth was an inventor, and brought many new inventions with him. One such invention was writing. Of it, he said, ‘here is an accomplishment, my lord, that will improve both the wisdom and the memory of your people.’ Thamus disagreed, saying that the inventor is hardly the best person to judge the value of his or her creation. He said that those who acquire writing will cease to require memory and become forgetful, that writing was a receipt for recollection, not memory. As for wisdom, those who acquired writing might seem knowledgable, but will indeed be ignorant, because they ‘are filled with the conceit of wisdom, instead of real wisdom.’

    On this topic, I sometimes fear that the Internet has negatively affected my memory. I never had a very good one to start with, and the reassurance that much of humanity’s factual information is at my fingertips hasn’t helped matters. I mean, why bother memorizing the capitals of Africa or the Prime Ministers in chronological order when I can find that information (nearly) in the time it takes to recall it from the hard drive that is my brain. What happens when our interface to the Internet (through, say, voice activation or even cerebral connection) becomes faster than our own memory? Just today a colleague and I were discussing a particular actor in a movie. While he tried to recollect the actors name, I visited www.imdb.com and found it first.

  • When did humans invent locks? Presumably it was to prevent people from entering their homes and stealing things. In truth, they may have been first applied to battlements and forts and that sort of thing, but I imagine the personal aspect came soon thereafter. Didn’t anybody say “hey, wait a second, perhaps instead of locking up ourselves and our possessions, maybe we should figure out why people want to steal from us”?
  • For no apparent reason, the grocery store near my work has implemented an automated people-distributer. Until recently, the person at the front of a single line of shoppers was called with a “next please” by the available clerk (there are generally 2 – 6 clerks on, depending upon time of day). This seemed a satisfactory way to organize people and to process orders as quickly as possible.

    However, the folks at Tesco have implemented a system where by there are little displays above every check-out counter, which display a number for the check-out stand. When the clerk finishes with a customer, they press a button at their till and a disembodied voice says ‘Checkout #4, please’ (disturbingly, there are both male and female voices who direct people, and there’s no association between the gender of the clerk and the gender of the voice…it seems entirely random).

    I’ve been thinking about this one, and the only benefit I could think of for the company is that they’re able to track clerk efficiency. But that falls through because they could just use data from the tills, but maybe that technology is out of date or inapplicable. Regardless, they’ve just complicated matters for the customer. Now instead of just responding to the audible indicator as to which way the counter is (a shopper can go left or right at the front of the line), listen for the counter number, compare it to the numbers above the check-out counters, and move accordingly. This can only slow down the process! This is a classic variation on today’s theme, which is: people applying new technology where none is required. This is the eBook of grocery shopping check outs!

  • This whole line of thinking emerged from my subconscious when I watched a recent news program about how parents were considering embedding microchips in their children so that they could be tracked if they were abducted or lost. Here’s an article about it from CNN. I found this concept pretty adhorent. Raise your hand everybody who thinks parents won’t abuse this the first time the kid’s late for curfew.

    It’s a classic case of what I’ve talking about here. Hey, we’ve got a social problem–the world’s full of sickos, parents can’t childproof the planet, whatever–and let’s make some technology to solve it.

Ultimately, technology’s only a Bandaid solution. I mean, houses are still broken into despite locks and alarms, and children will still be abducted despite micro chips in their hip. I have a quote in my head from a long time ago. Stewart L. Udall was referring to environmental degradation, but might have been referring to any problem (and nearly any people) when he said ‘The American people think technology waves a wand and the game goes on.’

It’s important to recognize that major technological developments don’t really solve problems. They may change the world, and incidentally solve some problems, but they inevitably cause others. From the wheel right up to nuclear power, they’ve all come at a cost somewhere. To get a little more abstract for a moment, we don’t really perceive a problem until we’re presented with a preferable alternative. That is, I think, an important lesson that the dot-com boom and bust can teach us: All of those companies were trying to convince us that we had problems we didn’t know about that their technology could solve. Even the dot-com winners convinced us that it was, for example, a problem to go down to your local bookshop to purchase a book.

I’m not a technophobe, and I’m not really dissing technology here. What’s important to remember is that technology will change the way we live whether we want it to or not. We should let it do that, and should find natural ways to integrate it into our lives. We shouldn’t use it to package our social woes up and launch them into orbit. They’ll just come crashing back down.