We Don't Know What Technology Is

Some people say technology is a tool. Some say it's a body of knowledge, or a way of using materials, or the organisation of human activities. For many, technology is a distraction. For others, it's simply destiny. Sometimes you'll hear someone say that technology is a 'double-edged sword.' Watch out for that one - it's a meaningless aphorism disguised in a silk tie and expensive shoes; the equivalent of saying that food can be either delicious or unpalatable. If you ever hear a speaker or consultant peddling this as a valuable insight, avoid them at all costs. 

We don't own silk ties or expensive shoes. And we're not entirely sure we have a fixed definition of what technology is. So we thought we'd have a crack at what we think technology ISN'T. 

1) Technology is NOT the cause of our problems

The world faces serious issues, from climate change and environmental degradation, to economic inequality, forced migration and political and religious extremism. It's tempting to blame our modern lifestyles for many of those problems. And since modern life is so often synonymous with technology, we blame it by association. We complain that social media is polarising, that robots destroy jobs and that drones kill innocent people. To blame social media for hateful outpourings though, is like blaming ink for venomous gossip. Yes, new technologies like robots and drones create unprecedented anxiety. But then so did the telephone, the railway, internal combustion, photography, laudanum, mirror glass, fire, television, gunpowder, the crossbow, distillation, the slingshot, and a bridge high across a foaming river. Stuff enters human lives. Some of it sticks around, some of it mutates and matures down the years, some of it is rendered redundant, some of it dissipates entirely. Meanwhile, we continue to try and limit the depradations of those whose prosperity or purpose is tied to the destruction of the planet and the misery of others. They're the problem. They always have been. And they still are today. 

2) Technology is NOT the answer to our problems

We're living in an age where the actions of a few hundred, socially anxious people from Silicon Valley are having an outsized impact on the rest of the world. Their belief in the power of technology to solve problems and improve lives has made them a lot of money, and brought some incredible benefits to the rest of the world in the process. Unfortunately, while techno-utopianism is great when you're building digital products, it's a lot harder when you're dealing with crops, or transport systems, or government bureaucracies. Software companies might be eating the world, but they get serious indigestion when they ignore local politics, or are unable to differentiate between the needs of a 43 year old programmer in Oakland and a 17 year old girl in Saudi Arabia. The geeks would do well to remember that the answers to most of our problems are already here. They’re in other people’s heads. Technology helps us share those ideas, and gives us the tools to bypass many roadblocks. But it can't succeed unless it's combined with well designed institutions, strong movements for social change and elected leaders that are willing to take risks. 

3) Technology is NOT the end of magic

There's a popular idea floating around in a lot of wealthy societies that our gadgets, tools, screens and machines have taken something away from us. They prevent us from appreciating beauty, from connecting with others and from understanding what it means to be truly human. This is a Promethean view of the world, with technology as an outside force that we discovered by accident. It brings us many benefits, but it also comes at the expense of things like spirituality, nature, or love. The problem with this idea is that it's too mechanistic. We forget that technology is intimately connected with the story of our evolution and is as much a part of what it means to be human as our dreams, myths or belief systems. Technology has always existed side by side with the other things that matter to us. Stories sound better when you're sitting in front of a fire. Meditation is easier with an app. Things like mystery and magic will always exist in the world. And they're always accessible to us, if we just use a little imagination.