Technology and the Social World 3

What we Gain, and What we Give Up

While technology extends our human abilities in certain ways, it limits them in others. So, with the telephone, for instance, we are able to hear at a distance, but at the cost of the many signals we get from the other person at close proximity.

This is a larger issue than we have already mentioned. When we embrace distance, we can give up closeness. When we embrace precision, we can give up comprehensiveness. When we embrace speed, we can give up slowness. When we embrace strength, we can give up weakness. Now this may be okay for certain purposes, but the cost can be great as the technosphere orients us to its own way of being. For example:

The news is more often of the distant than the near. As we focus on celebrities far away (like Schwartzenegger, for example), or on the problems in Iraq, by implication we say that what is near is less important.

The news also has the ability to overcome the limitations of time. Things happen "instantly". The reporter is always on the scene. It gives us the idea that things just happen in the world. They do not unfold. People don't deliberate, they act. There is a false sense of urgency about many decisions and events.

If you use a computer to produce statistics, you get the idea that the precision of these statistics implies that you have arrived at a precise explanation for things. Precision implies a close cause-and-effect relationship. It implies that things are mechanistic, rather than organic.

Strength seems to be a good thing. We want out technology to be able to deal with the task at hand. If it doesn't fit, get a bigger hammer. The problem is that sometimes strength can solve the symptoms, but it will not solve the problem. In woodworking, you can force things together to make them fit. As Japanese woodworkers would point out, though, truly understanding the wood means that strength is not always the answer. You work with the wood, not against it.

Speed seems to be a good thing in our world. We would not be able to do the sorts of things we like without automobiles, airplanes, etc. The problem is that speed feeds a goal-oriented world. It implies that some things are worthwhile (the goal) and some things are not (everything in between). Speed in travel is mirrored by speed in administrative operations. Execute the function as quickly as possible, and move to the next. Franklin critiques this as a downfall of prescriptive technology.

The point, then, is that it is not just that technology gives some particular ability while marginalizing other abilities. It instantiates an entire world view. If we are in a technological world, we have to deal with the oversights.

Is this an argument against technology? Would we be better if we just gave up these enhanced ways of doing things, and lived the simple life? Some would argue that we would be better off. I don't think so. The utopian view of Rousseauian naturalism can be just as dangerous as a technological utopia. We find new ways of structuring our world which incorporate some of the same limitations that technology gives us. The issue is that we need to learn to think philosophically about technology, to address the real issues, rather than just the issues that the producers of technology would like us to.

One good place to start this is with the information superhighway. The idea is that the small networks that currently exist ought to be linked together to form a large network. Question: what are the social implications of that move?