If technology is so bad for our spirits, why do we consume it?
For all the benefits technology has brought us, the costs of those benefits often glare too obvious, and for many of us, seem too dear. We definitely have More – more stuff, more knowledge, and more choices – but strangely according to newspaper polls we seem to be less equipped, less wise, less happy. What progress means for some people is that by the miracle of modern medicine, we can be unsatisfied for decades longer than ever before. Some year in the future, science will enable us to live forever, so we’ll be unhappy forever.
There is a widespread feeling that the technium grows by consuming irreplaceable resources, ancient habitat, and myriad wild species, yet returns to the biosphere only pollution, pavement, and myriad obsolete junk. Worse, this same technology takes from the least in the world – the nations with the most resources and least economic power – to enrich the most powerful. So as progress fattens the lives of the lucky few, it starves the unfortunate poor. Thus the expanding technium robs us of our humanity, and it also steals our children’s future. Therefore the so-called benefits of technology must be an illusion, a sleight of hand trick we perform upon ourselves to permit our addiction to the new.
That’s just the material aspect of the downside of technology. Technology is seen by many to prohibit a sense of the sacred or any kind of spiritualism. The technium’s rampant materialism outlaws greater meaning in life by focusing our lives on stuff. But in a blind fury to find some kind of meaning in life, we consume technology madly, energetically, ceaselessly, buying the only answer that seems for sale – more technology. “Needing more to be satisfied less” is one definition of addiction, and this is one explanation of why even those who intellectually despise technology still get the newest things. In other words, we are aware of how bad it is for us, but we continue to use it because we can’t help it. We have no choice.
I am skeptical of this addiction thesis. I see the logic but not the evidence. I personally don’t feel it, and I am bothered by its presumed ubiquity. On the other hand, technology is castigated by those who depend on it. If everyone finds technology so horrible, why do they continue to embrace it? For embrace it we do. Some of us use technology more selectively than others, but we can safely say that without exception every human alive on earth now uses technology to some extent (bows, arrows, lamps, plows, and so on), More importantly, all humans in my experience are tempted by better stuff.
The general pattern for our species, past and present, is a mad rush to inhale the latest technology available. This is just as true for those who view technology as a disease. I have a very vivid memory of interviewing the neo-luddite Kirkpatrick Sale, one of the fiercest living critics of technology, lounging in his brownstone apartment in downtown Manhattan, centered in perhaps the most technological place on earth. With no irony Sale railed against technology (and civilization) as the worst thing to happen to the planet and humans. He was of course surrounded by sophisticated technology that he had no intention of giving up. Ever. I don’t mean to single out Kirkpatrick Sale, because his hypocrisy is ours. If we so clearly see the overwhelming cost of increasing technology on the world, why aren’t we joining a huge migration of people returning to a pre-technological state?
One explanation is that we are duped. Not so much addicted as simply hypnotized by glitter. Technology, by some black magic, has impaired our discernment. In this account the technology of media disguises the true colors of the technium behind the front of utopia. Its shiny new benefits instantly blind us to its powerful new vices. We operate under some kind of spell. But it must be a consensual hallucination, because we all want the same new stuff: the best medicines, the coolest vehicle, the smallest cell phone. It must be a most powerful spell because it affects all members of our species without regard to race, age, geography, or wealth. This means that everyone reading this text is under this hex. The hip college-campus theory is that we are duped by corporations peddling technology and presumably by the executives running corporations, but that would mean that the CEOs are aware of, or above, the hoax themselves. In my experience, they are in the same boat as the rest of us. Believe me, they are not capable of such a conspiracy.
The unhip theory is that technology is duping us itself on its own accord. It uses technological media to brainwash us into thinking that it is wholly benevolent, and to disappear its downsides from our minds. As one who believes the technium has its own agenda, I find this unhip theory plausible. Its anthropomorphism doesn’t bother me at all. But by this logic we should expect the least technologically cultured people to be the least duped, and to be the most aware of the plainly visible dangers. They should be like the children who see the Emperor without clothes. Or with wolf’s clothing. But, in fact, those disenfranchised people not under media’s spell are often the most eager to trade in the old for the new. They look the juggernaut of the technium in the eye and say to it: give me it all, right now. And it is often the most technologically mediated people who “see” or believe in the presence of the technium’s spell. It does not add up for me.
I am reduce to the one remaining theory: we willingly choose technology with great defects and obvious detriments because we unconsciously calculate its virtues as slightly greater, even if not by much. In other words, we are vaguely aware of the costs of technological novelty, but we freely chose to embrace it – and pay the price.
I believe the costs of technology are not easily visible, and should be more articulated, more accurate, and better considered. You could say I am under the technium’s spell because I believe that the way to surface the costs of technology is with innovative technology. Such things as real-time monitoring, deep analysis, relentless re-testing, and honest accounting of externalities. I take these tools as progress. Progress is out of fashion right now, but I believe at this point in our species’ history, progress demands a better account of technology’s costs. And when accounting for the costs of technology becomes common, progress will return to fashion.
Occasionally a better account of the full costs will flip our embrace of the new, but I doubt it forces many of us to retreat from the technium because we are already doing this calculation every day (although not as precisely as we could). We see the societal costs of using an automobile, for instance, and we still use it (or someone else’s). Progress in illuminating the negatives of technology will enable us to tweak our embrace. It might also allow us to see that our embrace is done willingly, and is neither an addiction, nor a spell.