A few years ago, a student at my school was the victim of a devastating house fire. Upon learning that the student, an avid reader, lost her bookshelf of favorite titles, teachers combed their personal libraries and local bookstores in hopes of surprising the teen with a replenished bookshelf. The cause of the fire was old, faulty wiring—the only blame to be laid was at the foot of the landlord. As terrible as the fire was, the fire did not knowingly choose to devastate the family’s home. It was a tool of civilization that slipped its harness. In the proper times, when used judiciously, fire is the tool of civilized people.
The same can be said of technology. Does technology trap us or free us? That question presumes that technology is able to independently initiate action, knowingly determine how, when and why people will use it. Despite gains in cognitive robotics and the growing ability of our “smart” devices to anticipate our needs and wants, at this point, people are still the sentient force guiding the creation and evolution of the array of technologies we have surrounding us on a daily basis. Technology doesn’t either trap us or free us; human wisdom is the operating system determining when we are chained and when we soar. The shortage of wisdom to guide our use of technology is the heart of the issue.
Evidence abounds that we use technology in ways that hurts us on a societal level and on a personal level. Technology has changed the realities of childhood, for instance, in ways that my parents’ generation would never have tolerated when they were raising my generation. The idea that children would be “safer” in the house with electronic “games” than playing freeze tag until twilight throughout the neighborhood? Preposterous. Children as young as kindergarten spending multiple days taking computer-administered tests to assess their “progress?” The PTA would have been in an uproar. The incessant screen time that my children and students view as normal averts their major bugaboo, boredom, and leaves them in a consuming haze—the limits to watching that were common in my childhood are nearly unenforceable and unimaginable now. Even the idea that teens and preteens “need” a phone in case of emergency—were there emergencies that previous generations never learned about because the ubiquitous cell phone hadn’t been invented? People—parents and children, friends and lovers—expect constant, instant communication because the tool for it exists, not because the bulk of us face daily crises.
The degree of intrusion and surveillance that we accept knowingly is staggering, and the fact that we not only accept most of it unquestioningly, but we feel reassured that we are “safer” because “they” can watch. In return for the promise—or illusion—of security, we sacrifice privacy and autonomy. As parents allow corporations to follow their children’s browsing, watching and traveling to create more targeted advertising, we all agree that it’s basically harmless, and.. well..it’s not as if we could stop it anyway at this point. It’s easy to shrug, then immerse ourselves in Netflix or YouTube to see the latest viral video.
But technology is a tool, and there are innumerable benefits and advances that are possible because of our ability to design better technologies. Medical “miracles” happen because technology works. My friend has a grandson with SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and technology gives that baby both a higher quality of life and reason to hope that progress towards a cure is coming. Because of technology, also, information and support is only a mouse click away. For every scary story of sexual predators or bullying teens, there’s a counter story of lives changed for the better because of the wonder of instant, credible information and support that is available because of technology. And, as last fall’s Ice Bucket Challenge proved, the internet can be used to raise awareness and funds that last long past the fad.
When the first cavewoman got the great idea to harness fire for cooking as she was trying to decide what to do with a dead Mammoth, it was progress. There were probably cavemen screeching warnings about the danger then, too. But wisdom and knowledge won out, and generally, we appreciate fire as an indispensable tool. Unless we develop wisdom soon, we will allow technology to trap us—but let’s focus the blame where it belongs. Technology is a tool, and if it becomes our jailer, it’s because we let it.