Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Technology’s grip is felt in every aspect of our lives and yet we don’t understand it

STRANGELY, it is often the things which are most influential in our lives which go unnoticed and escape thorough examination. Mankind has long proved adept at slipping into routine, and with such familiarity comes the notion of ‘to take for granted’. For most of us, much of our daily routine - what we eat, where we go, who we like, love and hate – is taken as a given - it just is.

Nothing shapes how we live so profoundly, and yet barely registers in our attention, as much as the advancement of technology. Despite being unprecedented in all of history, the fact that it’s perfectly possible to have breakfast in Dublin and dinner that evening in New York rarely fills us with awe. Every time we turn on the oven, get the bus, or send an email or text message, our ways of living, communicating and, even thinking, are being shaped in ways unheard of in times past.

Naturally, this raises an important question: does the relentless evolution of technology improve and enrich our lives, or merely cause more problems than it solves. After all, the very technology that allows the miracle of transatlantic restaurant-hopping also facilitated the leveling of Hiroshima and, with it, the obliteration of thousands. History has shown us that the most innocent seeming of developments can become deadly in the hands of the unscrupulous; today’s life-saving cure could well become tomorrow’s plague.

In many ways technology illustrates both, humanity’s greatest strength, and its crippling weakness: an insatiable appetite for improvement and an inability to ever be fully satisfied.

Consider if our proverbial Neanderthal friend ‘Mr. Ugg’, after discovering fire, had decided he was happy enough with his situation – that getting a little prehistoric with Mrs. Ugg beside the fire would keep him content for the rest of his days. And imagine if everyone else had followed suit. Well, that would have been the end of progress; the day man stopped striving for something better. The bizarre world in which we live is built on the struggles of people who wanted ‘something more’.


But in our quest for the perfect world do we risk overstretching ourselves? In John Gray’s fascinating, and indeed wretchedly depressing, Straw Dogs, the author argues that what we know as human progress is in fact an illusion and that, in fact, we are hurtling towards self-destruction. Gray cites the millions killed in the name of progress in Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R as examples of how “Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.” It can be argued quite convincingly that such atrocities do not outweigh the good that has been accomplished through technology, but just on what side do the scales of progress tip? Has more harm been done than good?

We do not have to look at such heavy questions to ponder as to what the point of certain ‘advancements’ is. The late Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich once calculated that, between working to pay for tolls, tax and insurance and waiting in it when idle, the typical American – and I doubt the Irish differ greatly – puts in 1600 hours a year into their car in order to travel 7500 miles. That works out at around five miles an hour, not much faster than walking. This raises a fascinating possibility: like so many things we buy, is a car more important for the possibility of freedom it suggests or what it says about us, rather than its practical use?

Then there are just the downright irritating examples of machines going where one would prefer they didn’t. A purchase at Tesco can now see you being told by a friendly automatic checkout lady - in a curiously un-Irish accent mind – to ‘please take your change’ over, and over, and over until you wish that robots felt pain, just so you could cause them some. After this delightful experience has you reduced to a quivering mess uncertain of your own sanity, ‘Robo-lady’ thanks you for shopping at Tesco. Why on earth anyone would want to be thanked by a machine is beyond me, but there you go; technology is constantly becoming all the more bizarre.

And about the machine’s accent: on second thought, as much as much as ‘Robo-lady’s’ British twang annoys me, consider the more colloquial alternative: “Listen bud, would ya eva take yer bleedin’ change!” You can stay ‘Robo-lady’, all is forgiven.

Aside from simply being irritating, the Tesco experience also illustrates one of our technological adventure’s biggest implications: its effect on jobs and the workforce. After all, flesh and blood may well have once sat where an automatic checkout now resides. A suspicion of new technology and its effect on workers is nothing new, however; the Luddites of the early 19th century smashed looms in the belief that new technologies would replace them as workers. So, is the advancement of new technologies good or bad for jobs?


Such a motion was debated by two leading economists, Paul Krugman of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and David R. Henderson of the Hoover Institution, in 1996. Krugman argued that technology has a negative effect on wages by forcing people into lower paid jobs. By his rationale, a technological advancement which increases productivity replaces a job which would have been needed to achieve the same level of output: in his own words, “an investment that would have added two jobs will now add only one, so there will no longer be enough jobs created.” And so, the threat of unemployment will allow employers to lower wages and will result in worse, lower-paying jobs, despite a stronger economy.

Henderson, however, argued that while wages in the U.S. peaked in 1973 and are now lower, several important factors often aren’t taken into account. According to him, when improvements in quality and the ‘Wal-Mart phenomenon’ are accounted for, real wages in the U.S. have actually risen significantly since the 1970s. He reasoned that the technology which has slashed communication and transport costs has allowed supermarkets to sell goods at a fraction of the price they used to sell for in small shops. These savings and improvements in efficiency have, according to Henderson, allowed wages to go much further than they used to.

Interestingly, while the two economists disagreed over technology’s effect on wages, both said that, in the long-term at least, technology did not lead to a reduction in jobs. It seems that technologies which increase the profitability and size of companies can only lead to more jobs in the long run.

Accurately assessing the impact of technology on our lives is like trying to stop the sea eroding a pattern in the sand. Its effect is so multi-faceted and complex, with so many nuances and variables, that true comprehension is out of our reach. Technology has altered our lives beyond recognition and, as products of it as much as it is of us, we cannot step outside of it and observe it without bias.

One could say that technology is simply a tool and that how we use it is up to us, but even that seems uncertain and an overstatement of our understanding. For we do not simply use technology; it is not simply a blank canvas on which we paint. Technology uses and influences us too, and in ways we will probably never fully understand.