Is Technology a Gift or a Curse?

Is technology a curse?
Is Technology a Curse? 

The Age of the Machine

You can be living in the worst area in a city, but with a laptop and an internet connection, you can go anywhere. The day will come when the geographic space we occupy will have no bearing at all on what sights, smells, and experiences we can enjoy. There is an element of excitement when one imagines such a future, and yet there’s a feeling of dread. You can’t help but wonder, is technology a gift or a curse?

Too Late To Go Back

The idea of isolating yourself from the incessant noise of modern society has many fans that range from gurus like Ram Dass to serial killers like Ted Kaczynski. The latter wrote a thirty page manifesto which was a scathing review of the state of the modern, industrialized society.

As Ray Kurzweil notes in his book “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, it’s too late to go back to a primitive society now. There isn’t enough nature to go around for the billions of people on the planet. Urbanization and technology are necessary realities. An expanding population has resulted from advancements in technology, but the alternative to not becoming more technologically sophisticated is famine, disease, and pain. As inconvenient as it is to have to stop at red stoplights, and tolerate the many types of pollution that assault our senses, it is better than living under constant threat.

Most people don’t have time to question the consequences of technological changes. We have taken for granted that someone who knows better is steering us in the right direction. There are certain technologies that are being regulated by governments such as cloning, but ultimately, there are countless unregulated avenues that technology occupies. And the harms from these are less obvious. We don’t know what the effects of smartphone addiction will be in twenty years.

The trend will move towards more technological dependence the Law of Accelerating Returns predicts. For most of human history, technology developed slowly allowing people enough time to adapt to these changes. As society transforms quicker, it becomes more challenging for people to adjust their behavior fast enough. If this occurs, then the winner-take all effect will be magnified. Technology will become so cheap the decision to automate ceases to become a debate.

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st century, Harari devotes a chapter to this subject, and in it he brings up the idea of a ‘useless class’. That is, people who have been displaced in the job market and can no longer find jobs during to rapid technological disruption. It is as if time is speeding up to a point when inequality reaches its tipping point. At least, this is what many fear. But is it reasonable to assume that this vision of the future will materialize?

One consideration is the adaptability of human beings. In previous decades people had a choice when it came to technology. If you didn’t want to use a computer in the 80’s, you didn’t have to. But you can’t afford to not do so 10 years later. If you didn’t use a smartphone in the first years of its launch, you could get away with it, but eventually when everyone else started to use it, you had little choice.

The trend we see for all technologies is resistance, followed by either acceptance or rejection at a later point. That is, some technologies were fads. They made big headlines but no one hears of them a few years later. But the technologies that have been accepted, that turned out to be more than fads, find a way of spreading globally very rapidly. And fundamentally, people learned how to use them, and not all of them were born in Silicon Valley.

What will likely happen in the future is that this process will accelerate in speed, there will be a larger amount of products built on previous products, and instead of a single product, you eventually have a system.

Think of the cell phone, it started with a few functions. At first you could only use it to send and receive calls. Today, you can use it for practically everything, from booking your plane tickets to watching a movie. Today, the cell phone is a smartphone, and there is an entire infrastructure built around it being run by coders, advertisers, users, and investors. If you were to introduce a 50-year old prehistoric man to an old cell phone that could only send and receive calls, he may learn how to use it within a few hours – maybe days. But if you asked him to use a smartphone, he may need months, even years to learn how.

Yet if you asked a 5 year old prehistoric boy to use a smartphone, he would learn how to use it much quicker. Human beings adapt across generations, not across individuals, and they adapt geographically too. The question about whether technology will speed up too quickly is valid, but human behavioral patterns suggest that adaptability will not be a problem.

Today, it is easier than ever for people to learn how to code. It is becoming easier to make money online. And delegating jobs across the world has become the norm for many companies.

There is no reason to assume that we know what we are capable of, or that at some point during this technological leap, we will fall down. We don’t know how fast is too fast. If you told people in the 1920’s about Google, they would have thought you were insane, they couldn’t have conceived of the world of algorithms, and we cannot conceive of the world future generations will occupy.

Some technologists believe that humans will merge with AI in the future, others believe that AI will turn against humans in a terminator-like plot. Some believe that these changes will take place within a few years, others think they will take a few centuries. People make predictions on assumptions based on their unique selection of facts. Your future outlook depends on what part of the past you want to focus on.

But regardless of what your projections are, the reality is that we don’t understand how to deal with technological progress, we assume that is a problem for tomorrow, but it is actually a problem today, and always was one. The creation of the nuclear bomb is an example of where technology can lead us when motivated towards destruction. But think of something more subtle, the car. As of 2010, 1.2 million people died from car accidents in a single year. That is a death every 25 seconds. 

But that is collateral damage for economic progress. It can be argued that if cars didn’t exist, then a different form of transportation technology existed and there wouldn’t be so many deaths. But we don’t know that either. It may be that other forms of transportation could have resulted in more deaths and faster economic progress, or lower deaths and faster economic progress, or any other combination you like.

The solution to this problem may be in autonomous cars. Suppose that for many years, the total deaths from car accidents goes down to zero, thanks to the miraculous precision of self-driving cars, what would happen if a black swan, an unanticipated event happens that causes the network to malfunction. How many deaths could potentially result from this?

The same is true for nuclear technology. Since the cold war, the world has experienced a wonderfully peaceful period, by and large. But what is nuclear war did take place? Would the price of technological progress justify the deaths of half the world’s population?

Nations are not slowing down the arms race, if anything, they are speeding it up. Thus, while mutually assured destruction may sharpen people’s wits and make war a highly unlikely event – if advanced kinds of war do take place, the potential collateral damage is the end of civilization.

(After learning of the Doomsday Machine in the movie ‘Dr.Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, this exchange took place between the US president and Russian ambassador. 

President Merkin Muffley: But this is absolute madness, Ambassador! Why should you *build* such a thing?

Ambassador de Sadesky: There were those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. At the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we had been spending on defense in a single year. The deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

President Merkin Muffley: This is preposterous. I’ve never approved of anything like that.

Ambassador de Sadesky: Our source was the New York Times.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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