What Good is Technology Anyway?

There have been a few articles lately suggesting that perhaps technology is running out of meaningful things to do, that we already have all the technology we need. This reminds me a bit of the articles in the 1950s that estimated that there was need for at most a dozen or so computers in the world.

What good is technology anyway? I’ve argued before that the purpose of science is to “discover things that are interesting and sometimes useful”. The purpose of technology is to put those discoveries to use. It is true that in recent years, with most of the world unable to afford even the necessities of life, a lot of new technology has been frivolous, providing the very rich and very powerful with cute trinkets and toys that advertise and secure their wealth and power. It is equally true that technology can enable atrocities that would be impossible without it. As John Gray says:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

In an article last year, I solicited those in IT to please get out. But my argument was not anti-technology, it was rather that IT has become an organizational ghetto where some of the brightest people in the world are wasting their talent designing entertainments when what is really, urgently needed are Science-Based Enterprises addressing some of the world’s most challenging problems.

McLuhan was fond of saying that technologies are extensions of our bodies, our appendages and senses, allowing us to do things beyond our physical capabilities. So technologies don’t really do anything substantially different from what humans do, they allow us to do more of what we already do, sometimes a lot more than even a large number of humans working in parallel or in series could do. We can, I think, break these ‘capacities’ of technology down into five categories:

  1. The capacity to process and produce more, sometimes even with less material and less expenditure of human time and energy
  2. The capacity to connect us more with each other 
  3. The capacity to bring us information and sometimes even knowledge
  4. The capacity to bring us entertainment 
  5. The capacity to give us more control over our own lives (i.e. more control over nature)

Examples of technologies with these five capacities respectively are: Machines, Agriculture and the Wheel; Language, Radio & Telephony; Paper and the Internet; A-V Storage Devices; and Electricity, Drugs & Birth Control Devices. Like our bodies, these technologies all require energy, most of which now comes from burning hydrocarbons.

Those who are dismissive of the need for additional technologies, and disdainful of the value of technology, are most likely focused on some of the more wasteful, non-labour-saving technologies of type 1, the technologies of type 3 that provide us only with non-actionable, useless, distracting information, and the pandering technologies of type 4. Most of the problems we currently face on this planet (such as overpopulation and overconsumption) are due in no small part to some type 1 and type 5 technologies (such as agriculture and drugs) that, at the time, were essential to our survival.

Our closest cousins the bonobos have developed only the first two types of technologies: They use simple tools to dig out food, and facial, hand and vocal language to communicate with each other. They have all the time, information and entertainment they need, so they have not bothered developing technologies for these purposes, and the only additional control over their lives they need is a way to fend off human poachers, farmers and loggers encroaching on their dwindling habitat. They are unlikely to develop such technologies before they become extinct.

In a recent article I referred to the Lakota doctor who described four essential human capacities:

  • The capacity of belonging — reflecting the need to be recognized
  • The capacity of mastery — reflecting the need to build personal competence
  • The capacity of independence — reflecting the need to know our own power and agency
  • The capacity of generosity — reflecting the need to know our own goodness

We sometimes use technology to extend these capacities: We join ‘virtual’ groups that we could not join without technology. We ‘master’ video games (and some of us are perhaps too reliant on such technologies for our sense of self-esteem, though that is a topic for another article). We use the Internet to teach ourselves and to give to others.

What new technologies do we really need today? My answer would be primarily technologies that temper the unintended harmful effects of existing technologies, or help us devolve power and support essential social activities:

  • We need technologies that will enable us to reduce human numbers without suffering or discrimination: Highly-effective, idiot-proof voluntary birth control technologies with few or no side effects; and, if and when voluntary measures prove insufficient, safe fertility-reducing technologies that do not affect other species, that reduce the fecundity of every human female on the planet equally and that, like pollution, can be disseminated without political process. I know this latter idea terrifies many of my readers, and if it were done in any way that involved political intervention of any kind I too would find it unacceptable, but we must face the reality that our planet simply cannot support billions of humans and that we need to find some painless and non-discriminatory, non-political, non-invasive way to get our numbers back to sustainable levels.
  • We need technologies that will enable us to produce and deliver both essential and non-essential goods and services while consuming far fewer resources, far less energy, and producing zero waste in the process. Specifically, we need foods that obtain their proteins and nutrients from recycled or inanimate matter, and clothing and building materials that are durable and reusable, recyclable and/or biodegradable.
  • We need technologies that will enable people to find the people with whom they can best, and most happily, live, associate, collaborate, innovate, create, imagine, find meaning and companionship, make a living, and establish natural enterprises and intentional communities. We all want and need more attention and more appreciation, and technology can help us find the audience and love that will give us these things.
  • We need technologies that will show us (not tell us) how to do things, and let us practice doing those things that are valuable, meaningful, and help make us more self-sufficient. We have far too much useless information and not enough useful, self-esteem building knowledge and capabilities.
  • We need technologies that will help us be more generous — donating our time, skills, and free and unneeded possessions and wealth, to those who can really get benefit from them.
  • We need technologies that will enable greater personal self-expression — the ability to create works of art, music, film etc., using excellent, unlimited ‘virtual’ resources at no cost, and then to collaborate, to share them, discuss them, improve them, and propagate them.
  • We need technologies that will enable the creation and operation of true free markets where profound human needs can be identified and then met by collaborative, self-forming solution teams, in a socially and environmentally responsible way and at the lowest possible cost. And when that cost is still unaffordable for those in need, these technologies need to enable communities to spontaneously coordinate and aggregate the resources necessary to reduce or finance that cost to the point where it is affordable.

So the answer to this article’s question is that technology is potentially a great good for our society. All it would take to realize that good is for the bright underemployed minds to get out from under the suffocating organizations that waste their talents and drain their energies, and learn how to create their own businesses, substantial, networked, adequately-resourced, innovative entrepreneurial businesses that can give us not what the rich think they might want, but what we all really need.

Image: Experimental fusion energy machine from Lockheed Martin’s 100% government funded Sandia military research corporation. Your tax dollars at work.

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6 Responses to What Good is Technology Anyway?

  1. Your last comments have been excellent. About this current one, which of the five (or more) categories does yours belong in. :-) I assume that I am often found ridiculous but I think technology might turn into building something that will eventually enable all of ourselves as well as animals to another planet.Hey, if you’re at least half-way religious, then you might remember my same story about a big boat.aloha

  2. Meg says:

    I love this, Dave. Really thought-provoking. Thank you.

  3. Dave, very inspiring post! I have often asked myself why technology can lift ourselves to space , but never reaches the same scale of impact when it comes issues such as malaria, poverty, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS… and and and. I believe the main reason is committment. As you say talent is mainly committed to some “small” corporate tasks, while big global issues are waiting on the sideline. What would we have to do to divert this talent? How could we achieve the mindshift to divert creative technologists to focus on malnutrition rather than vitamins for rich OECD-retirees? One thing we have to credit Bill Gates for is that he is pulling a lot of talent in that direction – if he is doing it the right way is another question…

  4. The way I see it is through the lens of two books, written 50 years ago by Jacques Ellul: * The Technological Society * PropagandaThe images associated with the words “technology” and “propaganda” are the same today for anyone as they were for Jacques, when he wrote his books.[see http://www.regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/mdic/ellul.html as a primer, but you have to read both books before jumping to conclusions.]When people stop and understand the true meaning of “technology” and see how “propaganda” is the driving force for public opinion, then the economic, political, social, cultural, environmental and spiritual VERTIGO humanity is experiencing today will begin to change for the better.Until that time everybody is right in their opinion under the laws of “vertigo syndrome.”

  5. CElliott says:

    How sexist!!! Try reducing the fecundity of every human male instead.

  6. Lawrence says:

    “””We need technologies that will enable us to reduce human numbers without suffering or discrimination…” well. setting aside the questions of who will be willing to spray anti-fertility drugs into the air, how you’ll deal with the obvious comparisons to eugenics, and what kinds of long-term physiological effects it will have on us… even if you could get all that out of the way, you’d still be discriminating against anyone who wants to have a kid. do you really think it’ll become “common sense” that people shouldn’t reproduce? before utopia happens?

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