Saturday, November 13, 2010

Technology and Human Capacity

In Distraction, I devoted a chapter to technology, 'The Reins of Necessity'.

My appraisal was cautious but generous: I believe technology can help us live less distracted lives.

When it doesn't, the problems are often human, not technological.  As I put it on the BBC, 'we needn't ditch technology (a romantic pipe dream). Instead, we can remind ourselves of what it's for: enriching and amplifying our potencies.'  When these potencies are lacking, technology has nothing to work with - at least, nothing positive.

This point has recently been made more broadly in a fascinating essay for the Boston Review.  In 'Can Technology End Poverty?',  Kentaro Toyama shows how the promise of technological redemption in developing nations is often hampered by corruption, lack of education, political inertia and poor infrastructure.

Toyama isn't denigrating aid efforts.  Rather, he's demonstrating what seems like common-sense: we can't wait for technology to solve our problems.  That's not what it's for - not now, not ever.  He writes:
technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.
Shiny, smooth, seamless, technology offers this fantasy: a world without filth, pain and wasted life.  This can be simply exported - a thing apart, with magical powers.  Move the tools to a village, and the village becomes healthy, happy, beautiful.

But technology is not a thing apart.  It's always entangled with us; with our virtues, vices, blindspots and half-seen motives.  We can't expect our tools - computers, fountain pens, DNA splicers - to cultivate or overcome these on our behalf.  They have their own eccentricities, biases, oversights, but not the freedom to reshape themselves.  That's our gift and Sisyphean stone.

(Photo: The Daily Star)

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