SPOILER ALERT: TECHNOLOGY WON'T SAVE US
Technology isn’t going to save us.
We seem to expect great things from technology.
A number of folks seem to think that some new breakthrough machine, device, app, pill, or gadget will eventually solve our biggest problems.
At least for some, technology has become a substitute religion. (Saying this isn't exactly trendy, and might gore a sacred cow or two. But given the stakes, it seems necessary.)
This idea deserves a reality check.
Technology can be great, of course. The wheel. The printing press. The light bulb. Airplanes. Washing machines. Cell phones. Microwaves. Selfie sticks. Spray tans. Squeezable ketchup bottles. Calculator watches. Electric socks.
Techno-theists seem to imagine that this recent trend of massive wave of progress will continue indefinitely into the future, and will solve bigger and bigger problems until we eventually evolve our way into a utopian paradise.
But there’s a major problem with this vision.
The problem is human nature.
Solving certain external, physical, and mechanical problems is one thing.
Problems like washing dishes or printing books, for example, are solved with external, physical, mechanical solutions. Washing machines and printing presses do good work here.
But other problems exist on an entirely different level, where different questions reign.
Why are we here? What’s the point? What are we doing, anyway, and why? Where did we come from, and where are we going? What’s our origin and destiny? How should we live? How do we know? What is happiness, and how do we find it? What is suffering, and what can we do about it? What the heck is going on?
These are a few Big Questions.
Some dismiss them as somehow irrelevant or unanswerable.
But they’re unavoidable. We can’t not answer them. Each of us faces personal existential riddles. Technology itself assumes answers to these questions, even if it all happens under the rug.
But there are still plenty of other problems.
Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Stress. Suicide prevention. The experience of personal happiness and misery. Relationships that are functional or dysfunctional. Love, romance, and courtship. Problems of family, parenthood, and education. The perennial problem of old age, sickness, disease, and death, “the way of all flesh.”
These kinds of problems are a few steps beyond the dirty dishes problem.
Techno-theists assume that a successful approach in one area will necessarily apply to others. They overgeneralize. They assume our success with inventing gadgets will also apply to the bigger problems of life.
Some, for example, believe that this approach will even solve the problem of death.
For example, some imagine they’ll trick the Grim Reaper by downloading their consciousness into a computer. This will make “them” “immortal” (assuming the server doesn’t crash).
And they actually seem to take this seriously. The idea of becoming a digital Franken-Pet Sematery cyborg – some sort of half-man-half-machine robo-Vader creature – somehow seems attractive to them. (It doesn’t seem to bother them that basically all the stories that have explored this idea – from Frankenstein and Flatliners to Transcendence and so on – have wound up in the genre of horror.)
But this approach uses the wrong tool for the job.
We can’t solve existential problems with math.
It’s like trying to solve moral problems with a calculator, or trying to brush teeth with a sledgehammer. Some tools are right for the job, and others aren’t.
Some problems are physical, external, objective, impersonal, and mechanical. Others are non-physical, internal, subjective, personal, and non-mechanical.
The approach that works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.
But this entire approach also depends on another mistaken idea.
We often assume that technology is inherently good.
But technology is neutral.
Fire is neutral. It can be used to either cook food (“good”) or burn down a building (“bad”). A hammer can be used to either build a house or destroy it.
In the same way, technology can be either “good” or “bad,” depending on how it’s used.
Technology can give us medicine, which could either heal us or turn us into addicts. It can give us weapons, which can either defend the innocent or wipe out the human race. It can give us television, which can mean great entertainment or daytime talk shows.
How it’s used depends on us.
Technology is an extension of us.
And that is (or should be) a scary thought. Technology goes in whatever direction we point it. But humans have great potential for good and evil. Technology brings out and multiplies whatever is inside us.
Like the mecha-suit in the movie Alien, technology doesn’t necessarily do good. It just extends our reach. It doesn’t decide what to reach for. A saint could make use of technology, and so can a Stalin.
Most of us already know this intuitively. Yet our efforts today seem almost entirely focused on how to get a longer reach.
To put faith in technology is to worship a flawed god. We invest so much of our energy, money, and brainpower in this direction that the situation is becoming dangerously lopsided and unbalanced.
The movie Oppenheimer offers us a stark warning.
The efforts of some of our greatest minds can result in more effective ways to kill each other, and ourselves.
We can be geniuses in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering but still be psychologically, spiritually, and morally illiterate.
Humanity has made immense progress in knowledge of the external, objective, physical, mechanical, and impersonal. But in areas of the internal, the subjective, the non-physical, the non-mechanical, the personal – where most of us live and work and exist – we’re becoming malnourished.
Some problems won’t ever be solved by more technology. That isn’t where we should invest our hope.
The answer isn’t to go full luddite and abandon technology.
But we have to advance in the opposite direction.
The antidote to this imbalance lies in making a U-Turn. We have to rebalance.
Traveling to Mars, or Pluto, or even across distant galaxies wouldn’t necessarily change a single thing about our basic human situation here at home.
Greater knowledge about the external universe won’t solve the very real problems we face in our personal lives.
We seem to need a fresh approach.
If technology won’t save us, what’s the alternative?
Maybe we need to move in the exact opposite direction instead of solely “out there.”
If the answer doesn’t lie in working to understand mere nature, maybe it lies in the direction of understanding human nature. We seem to know more about virtually every other form of wildlife aside from our own. Instead of more chemistry or biology, we seem to desperately need a much more advanced psychology. We need to understand the understander, learn about the learner, make scientific discoveries about the scientist.
As T. S. Eliot said:
“Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
The reverse of this bleak trend lies in moving back from mere information to knowledge, from mere knowledge to wisdom, and mere living to Life. Mere access to information isn't enough. Instead of just using our minds to understand the universe, we can use our minds to understand the mind.
No machine or app will ever be introspective for us. Introspection is the rarest and most precious mineral in some circles today. It’s a taboo we should break.
We study the universe with our mind, but we rarely study the mind. In the end, we might find the most profound “invention” in the universe right between our ears. Yet most of us look anywhere but there.
Instead of relentlessly developing machines or assuming that mere access to information will do the trick, maybe it’s time to progress in areas that are much more difficult and challenging than physics, chemistry, space travel, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
And more intimate.
Maybe it’s time to explore the last great frontier.
Maybe it’s time to really know ourselves.