Confusing the technology with its use makes it worse
“I hate Zoom,” we say. Or we opine on how Artificial Intelligence will make humans unnecessary. “I’m a Luddite,” a friend says, excusing her inability to create a playlist.
When did we start blaming technology? Well, the Luddites did it, of course, breaking up industrial machines in protest. We can go back further. In the 4th century BC, Plato recorded that Socrates distrusted writing. It froze ideas and prevented conversation about them, slowing knowledge. Of course, without writing, we wouldn’t know that he believed that.
And there’s the rub. “I found it on the internet,” we say, when what we mean is that we found it on a website, a website written by another person. It’s akin to someone saying “I found it in the library” — it says nothing but the location of the information. The technology is being confused with how it is used.
When the atomic bomb was being developed, J. Robert Oppenheimer came to realize that an uncontrollable power had been unleashed. He and other scientists protested its use. The atomic bomb was the ultimate Frankenstein’s monster, a product of scientific exploration that had deadly repercussions. It is perhaps because it was actually used, to horrific effect, that we began to get confused.
Technology is not sentient. It is developed by humans, and has human dreams and failings embedded within it. And it is not monolithic, unstoppable, or all-powerful. But its power always requires that humans rise to its intellectual challenge. Discernment is the key, using intellectual processes to determine what to jettison, what to keep, where to allow control, and where to mandate human oversight.
Take Zoom, for example. It’s a videoconferencing program, not the first, nor the best. Those who hate it are stuck in interminable meetings, staring at little boxes with faces.
But teleconferencing is a miracle: it’s the watch on Dick Tracy’s wrist, the big screen in Star Trek (“on screen!”), the video telephone from Kubrick’s 2001. It’s for talking to the captain of the other starship, finding the hoodlums, conversing with your toddler because you’re on another planet and can’t be there in person. You don’t take something like that and use it for stupid meetings that should never have happened in person, or at all.
Technology has always been about extending human capability, whether it’s a hammer extending the arm or a satellite extending communications. Even with teleconferencing, not everyone got to say goodbye to dying loved ones during the pandemic. But without it, almost no one would have. It’s a poor substitute for a hug, of course, but it has kept many people safe in an unsafe time. So go ahead and hate it because your boss is wasting your time, but remember: that’s not Zoom’s fault.