Have you ever noticed that the mainstream press loves a good “technology is evil” story? This BBC story this morning reports that there is “a strong link between heavy internet use and depression”. The implied cause and effect sounds bad huh? Using the internet is going to make you depressed. But look a little closer. The research found simply that 18 people or 1.2% of the total sample were depressed and that they were also heavy internet users, with the researchers being at pains to point out that there was no evidence of cause and effect. So it could equally be that if you are depressed you might just like to use the internet a lot to cheer yourself up. So why didn’t the BBC report “that there is a link between depression and heavy internet use”? Perhaps it is because they are Technological Determinists.
Thomas L. Friedman, who’s excellent “The World is Flat” I have just finished reading, openly admits he is a Technological determinist. He sums it up….
“I believe that capabilities create intentions. If we create an Internet where people can open an online store and have global suppliers, global customers, and global competitors, they will open that online store or bank or bookshop…if we creat cell phones with cameras in them, people will use them of all sorts of tasks, from cheating on tests to calling Grandma in her nursing home on her ninetieth birthday…But while I am a technological determinist, I am not a historical determinist. There is absolutely no guarantee that everyone will use these new technologies, or the triple convergence, for the benefit of themselves, their countries or humanity. These are just technologies.”
In a nutshell the determinist view is that if a technology is created, then the behaviour that is enabled by that technology is also created. And this process is an immutable feature of any technological innovation. It is kind of a seductive line of thinking. Just think about the impact of different technology, when a technology is created behaviour follows that you can’t control. Gutenberg invented the printing press, then people started reading. Henry Ford invented the Model T, then people started driving. Zuckerberg invented Facebook, then people started Poking each other. Kalshnikov invented the AK-47, then people started shooting each other…you see, dangerous thing technology isn’t it?
You often you hear reactionary types who aren’t happy about change moan about the “dangers” we are facing from a determinist position. In this recent article in The Observer , Dr Aleks Krotoski apparently worries about the web having become “intrusive and threatening” and it being “democratic, but dangerous too”. Now, neither of those statements come from the body of her article which is actually pretty balanced, so I wonder if really it is the editorial team at The Observer that are the reactionary Technological Determinists and not her. But anyway she does claim that when the internet is used to:
“…radicalise new recruits to fundamentalist causes…or promote propaganda within authoritarian states, the web becomes something to condemn”.
But why condemn the web? The reason the web is singled out is because it is a new technology. We no longer condemn books because of the printing of radical literature. It is human nature that that fuels fundamentalism. We should be condemning the elements of human nature that we despise instead.
I am definitely not a Technological Determinist. For me technology follows human nature. Behaviour is a product of both human nature and the tools we have to express that nature. Technological innovation seeks to satisfy our natures, our innate needs. Technology is an enabler. Technology means I can Poke you, or use an Ak-47. But the thing is I am a social animal so I always wanted to Poke you, it is just that now I have the means. I am also a territorial and tribal animal so I always wanted to kill you, and now I have the means to do so with ease.
I agree with Friedman, that you can’t always predict how people will use a technology in advance, and in a sense technology’s role is neutral without a human agent. But rather than focus on the merits of this or that technology, it is more constructive for us to look beyond the technology to the human nature that technology seeks to satisfy. Let’s not forget that technology is also the enabler that has allowed billions to escape subsistence lifestyles, and will hopefully allow the remaining billions to do the same.
One of society’s key roles should be to debate what elements of human nature we really want to encourage, and which corresponding behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. Overstating the role of technology as the cause of those unacceptable behaviours confuses the debate. When we ban mobile phones in train carriages, what we should really be banning is loud antisocial conversations. When we bemoan our children’s use of Google to answer questions, we should be encouraging them to see the value in thinking for themselves.
So what to call the counter point to Technological Determinism? I am not sure, but when thinking about technology I think we should start with human nature in mind. Perhaps Technological Humanism? My definition would be – “The belief that technology exists to statisfy the fundamental needs of human nature, by supplementing human abilities, empowering individuals and enabling new behaviours”. I am an optimistic realist, so keeping in mind that technology can be used for ill as well as good, it feels right to me to focus on the tremendous force for good that that exists with the creative and innovative application of technology to the world’s problems.