By automatically assuming any new technology is good simply because it is new we voluntarily surrender our agency, and diminish our humanity, says Eric Weiner. The New York Times bestselling author and armchair philosopher is the latest commentator to backlash against technology. Others include Michael Sacascas.
Weiner claims to be no luddite. He just thinks the fetishizing of progress by technology needs a rain check and has five questions he’d like to grill every innovation and inventor with before blind adoption.
“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” is his first question.
“Because we can is not an adequate reason to pursue a new technology,” he says. “Nor is ‘because it is new.’ ”
He suggests that we in the West take heed from the Chinese, whom he says are less concerned with the novelty of an invention or idea and much more concerned with its utility.
“Not ‘Is this innovation new and surprising?’ but ‘Is it useful?’ ”
This will be a tough one to actually put into practice. Western culture in the last hundred years has been built on supply and demand and on an advertising industry creating demand where there is none. Is X innovation useful? No. But can it be sold and therefore make the innovation owner money? Yes. Hence, we get Quantas’s plan to operate non-stop flights from Sydney to London in 2025, shaving a few hours off the journey. Does anyone, let alone the planet, really need that? Weiner implies that is up to all of us — the market — to sideline innovations like this for greater societal good but what is the likelihood of this?
“No technology is neutral. They all contain a certain bias. Nowhere is this technology-is-neutral myth more apparent than when it comes to social media. Executives at Facebook and other social-media platforms insist their services are agnostic; they can be used for either good or bad. Yet this claim conveniently ignores the way their algorithms amplify certain human weaknesses, such as fear, and discourage others, such as empathy.”Eric Weiner
The answer to which may lead to a second probe: “Is there another, non-technological way to solve the same problem?” Weiner asks.
“Rather than spending billions to develop supersonic airliners, we could teach people how to cultivate traits like patience. How often is there a better low-tech solution? We don’t know because we don’t stop to ask.”
A third filter, one that has cropped up increasingly lately in relation to AI, is to quiz the technology’s bias.
“No technology is neutral. They all contain a certain bias. Nowhere is this technology-is-neutral myth more apparent than when it comes to social media. Executives at Facebook and other social-media platforms insist their services are agnostic; they can be used for either good or bad. Yet this claim conveniently ignores the way their algorithms amplify certain human weaknesses, such as fear, and discourage others, such as empathy.”
The controversial claim by a Google engineer that the AI he was working with had gained consciousness is in some people’s view a distraction from AI’s inherent bias. Kenan Malick picks this up in a Guardian article and also questions the encroachment of AI on our privacy.
From the increasing use of facial recognition software to predictive policing techniques, from algorithms that track us online to “smart” systems at homes… We are stumbling towards a digital panopticon.
Weiner’s fourth question is to probe the intended consequences of the technology.
“There is no such thing as consequence-free technology. All gadgets have tails, some longer than others. And sooner or later, they all bite back.”
His example: The widespread use of air conditioning in cities has increased outdoor temperatures by as much as ten degrees.
“We can’t foresee all of these side effects, but we can do a much better job of anticipating them.”
The failure to predict the unintended consequences of technology is deeply problematic and raises thorny questions, Rachel Botsman agrees.
We should also ask who stands to benefit if a new technology is a success?
Using supersonic air travel as the example, it clearly benefits the busy business traveler more than the retired couple taking a leisurely vacation. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build the next Concorde, but we should do so with our eyes wide open about who stands to gain and who stands to lose.”
Weiner signs off, “Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where every new technology is blindly accepted, and slavishly deployed. Yes, we can we stop progress. To which I say: thank goodness.”