Sunday, July 24, 2011

Technium: God/Smack

Reflections in response to the Kevin Kelly vs Nick Carr discussion on whether technology is intrinsically moral, even Godly, with its own "will", and it is our sacred duty to be "fruitful and multiply" as much technology as we can.

It's a bit worrying to see technology elevated to a religious status, an uneasy feeling similar to the one I get when I read Singularitarian Time Magazine spreads.

It's difficult to say that technology in the geological-scale view has not increased human options and possibility for utility. But "Happiness" and utility are sticky Gordian issues. As Warren Buffet, one of the greatest beneficiaries of modern technology has said, "Time is the most valuable asset." If this is true, perhaps we apotheoses of tech with our realtime-media absorbed neuroses, overloaded schedules and eternal scarcity of time are really far poorer, ultimately, than the 2-4 hour mongongo nut gathering day of the Bushmen who had all the time in the world to relax and spend with family. Perhaps "technium" is closer to a nerd-equivalent of cocaine. It looks so great on the missionary's TV, so you leave the rainforest to score some. At first you get a euphoric rush and feel like anything is possible. But over time, your high-paying, high-tech digital addiction becomes a cage of Angry Birds, virtual personas you must maintain, social ladder-climbing, and general keeping up with the Hamptons. Soon you discover your most precious asset -- time -- sucked into the black hole that the "technium" drug has left in you, feeding it just to stay afloat.

While many rural flock to cities, it is equally true that many of the highest-powered cityslickers seek out more tranquil, more sane, lower-tech lives, moving out into the country and trying to live off the land i.e. the organic, local and resilient community movements. it's also debatable whether the millions of Chinese who leave their rice paddies in order to become slave-labor iPad makers working 16 hour days for a dollar inhaling asbestos are improving their lives.

But ultimately, I think my fear is when we project a "morality" on technology such that it is good in and of itself. A hammer is a tool, which can be used for good or evil: you can build a house or you can smash in a skull. Atomic energy can be used to annihilate all life on Earth many times over, or it can be used to keep your lights on. Was hundreds of thousands of people dying horribly in a nuclear blast, many more suffering cancers and other effects of fallout an expression of God's love? Computers can be used to help us communicate more easily, or computers can be used for high-frequency-trading creating a malignant financial system disconnected from reality and ultimately helped a near-global economic meltdown. Games can help surgeons improve success rates, or they can become a distracting time-sink techcrack. In short; technology is not "love" or "godly", but rather a set of inert instruments which allow options that can have both positive and negative effects. Just as "guns don't kill people," so technology is neutral: it is people that give it a moral valence through their use of it.

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