What is Technology? Cure or Curse?


Wasik, John

May 21, 2013


 To most Americans, technology is balm, blanket and buoy line to the rest of the world.

 We commune with facebook buddies, read targeted posts on Reddit or do a self-EKG at home and send it to a cardiologist (as a friend did on his Apple iPhone the other night). My younger daughter posts snapshots on Instagram. My older daughter texts. I post and tweet my writing all over. Google me. My cyber-scribbling is everywhere.

Yet there are myriad false promises with technology. While creating jobs in Silicon Valley and sweatshop factories in Asia, it may be hurting us in the U.S. And technology’s role in social change is frequently overblown.

Two powerful views have emerged on technology that are worth our attention and public discussion. New books from Jaron Lanier, the pioneer of virtual reality, and the team of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Rhodes Scholar Jared Cohen, are worth dissecting.

In The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen lay out an argument for a better world through technology. Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? is an incisive meditation on the winners and losers in a tech-dominated society. Both are worth reading, but Lanier’s book stabs at the heart of the idea that technology will create a Democratic utopia.

The Google-Eyed View

To understand the Panglossian-tech view, I went to see Schmidt and Cohen speak at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on May 10 in Chicago. They spoke to a packed ballroom as part of their national book tour.  The team has traveled all over the world to promote technology in the guise of Google’s growing global reach. They’ve been to Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and Africa in an attempt to promote technology as a tool for complex social problems.

In their book, Schmidt and Cohen straddle the view that technology has fomented social upheaval in places like Egypt, where the Arab Spring has turned into a dismal nightmare. Their claim is that people took to the streets once their internet was turned off.

To take such a view must be comforting to Silicon Valley moguls, but it ignores reality.

The Egyptian people, after four generations of military repression and kleptocracy, probably would’ve turned out in Tahrir Square without Facebook, Twitter and a working cellphone network. Food prices were soaring, unemployment was dismal and a young population had little hope of moving ahead. They were down to their last straw. Did technology jumpstart the revolution? It worked much better than smoke signals as an organizing tool, but it certainly didn’t drive the long-term revolt, or create the fuel for it.

Even more incredible was Schmidt and Cohen’s trip to North Korea, where they were ushered into a frigid, unheated room because the regime didn’t have enough fuel to provide heat. In a trip that Schmidt described as “bizarre,” he described dressed-up, traffic-directing women in high heels — with only a few cars on the road. He asked them if they realized they were a YouTube sensation. Not only had they never heard of YouTube, they had never heard of the Internet. Did they even have enough to eat?

What was the point of trying to promote technology to a country where three generations of dictators were starving and jailing their own people and channeling meager resources into nuclear weapons? Was technology the fix they needed? How about food or diplomacy? Both the book and their presentation disturbingly danced around this issue and many others where they implicate technology in massive social movements.

Then there’s the long-held view that technology is somehow replacing millions of high-value American jobs in manufacturing, most of which are not coming back.

When questioned about Lanier’s view that technology is eliminating jobs — there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this by looking at America’s factories and offices — Schmidt barked down the questioner in Chicago:

“The book [Lanier’s Who Owns the Future] is wrong. He can’t prove it. It’s intellectually wrong.”

After gleefully promoting Google Play, Android and Google’s latest gizmo “Google Glass,” a voice-activated pair of spectacles connected to a computer that has privacy hawks alarmed, Schmidt trumpeted the American version of Internet “because it reflects our values.”

While warning about Chinese intrusions and cyberwars, Schmidt was confident that everything in the future would be run on remote “cloud-based applications” on servers run by — you guessed it — companies like Google. No mention of the massive data mining and privacy incursions that happen every second on the Internet.

Overall, the Schmidt/Cohen book was poorly edited and written. At times, it seemed like I was reading topic sentences from Google searches with the wrong verbs. I didn’t learn anything new from it, although I had high hopes.

The future, author William Gibson reminded us, “will be unevenly distributed.” If we adopt the philosophy of technology as panacea, then we should all be gaining the kind of wealth that Silicon Valley barons are amassing. But that’s not happening and one reason we need to pay rapt attention to Jaron Lanier.

More on Lanier in my next post.




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