Technology is… (1)

Technology is not in our hands, but in our heads.  We live in a world of our choosing. 

Everything about technology starts with a choice.

It is hard to see this, as we live in what Ursula Franklin called our “culture of compliance.”  Every day, we are constrained by technology, forced into lock-step as we log into our daily routines.

Yet we have choices – we are just encouraged by mass culture not to see them for what they are.

Ask group of people (as I regularly do) whether they have made an ethical choice so far today, and most will say “no.”  Yet each us of makes hundreds of such choices, every day – from what we wear, to how we travel, to what we eat, to how we behave.  If we do not recognize these choices for what they are, we are still making them.  We are just not thinking about it.

If you want an explanation for the unsustainable condition of our planet, this would be half of it.  We make decisions without thinking about what we are doing.   Even if today we make brilliantly sustainable ethical choices, we can have no expectation that we will do the same thing tomorrow.  Nor should we — after all, we did not realize what we were deciding today!

This explains why perfectly intelligent, reasonable, and well-intentioned people can consistently make foolish and dangerous decisions. Quite literally, they were not thinking clearly enough about what they were choosing – or perhaps not thinking at all.

The first lesson, therefore, is that we need to think about what we are choosing, all the time, each of us, every day.  This leads to a much more intentional life – and likely to a shift in the choices we make when we consider more of their implications for ourselves, for other people and for our planet.

But this leads to the other half of the explanation. We are not only making choices without thinking, we are making them about something we don’t understand – technology.

It may sound crazy, as we are all citizens of that global technological society, but it is true.  If you were to ask the average person “what is technology?” (again, as I do), you would get a certain range of answers:

Technology is recent, if not new; it is mechanical and certainly electrical, it involves devices and gadgets.  It’s what we use to make our lives easier, to develop the human race toward some brighter future, reflected in growth and optimism about progress.  On a darker note, western technology (and the science that co-exists with it) is better than anything else from anywhere else, whether in terms of time (modern is better than old) or geography (urban and western better than rural and southern).  While it needs an essay of its own to develop this idea, we are witnessing scientific imperialism today that is no different and just as destructive of local culture as the political, economic or religious imperialisms of another era.

If any of these thoughts reflect your own definition of technology, consider the following:

Technology is not new.  It goes back to when Grok picked up the rock for the first time and threw it at a sabre-toothed tiger.  Technology has been with us since the dawn of human culture.  It is what makes us human.

Every culture, every society, therefore, has had its own technology.  It was not the same as ours, obviously, but it was what they needed to survive.

There is therefore no such thing as progress – there is development and change, to be sure, but progress is much more difficult to establish than the popular idea of it suggests.  Progress is a measurement, and any measurement requires an initial benchmark as a starting position, and then a unit of measure.  Getting rid of the emotional blackmail associated with “progress” is a first step toward making better choices toward a sustainable future.  Instead of being for or against progress, we can focus on what is appropriate technology to do what we need to do.  New, traditional – whatever works.

This leads back to where we started this discussion – technology is in our heads, not in our hands.  It does not exist apart from the decisions made to create or to use it.  Technology is never neutral, as a result.  Technology is always the product of choices; choices are for reasons; and those reasons reflect the values of those people doing the choosing.

We can work back from an object of technology to the choices that led to its creation and use.  From there we can figure out why it was developed and what values lie behind those reasons.

Technology also exists in systems, never by itself as an object.  If we want to understand technology, we have to understand the complex of social, cultural and environmental systems related to it as well as the technological ones.  All these systems together also embed values.  If you really want to change outcomes, the starting point is the value set, what people as individuals (and in larger groups, as societies and cultures) think is important.

So, the choice is ours alone.  Technology is instrumental knowledge and its practice, knowledge that we use to do something we choose, for reasons that we think reflect the values we think are important.  It is practical knowledge, appropriate to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and in response to the problems and concerns of the here and now.

Because technology is in our heads, individuals and societies that make the right choices survive.  Those that make the wrong choices do not.  Look back in history, and you will find examples of right and wrong choices and their outcomes.

We are no different than any past society, nor are we as individuals immune from the consequences of bad choices about our own technology.  It may be frightening to think that so much rides on what we choose, but in this there is both hope and good news:

First, we have choices, just as other people have always had.  Nothing is foreordained or determined when it comes to technology.  Technology is neither neutral nor autonomous, with a mind of its own.  We decide, still.

Second, we have far more tools than we realize – because the most important one is between our ears.  We just need to think more clearly about what kind of technology is appropriate, regardless of whether it is new or old, complex or simple.  Technology will shape our future, as it has always done – but it is our choice what tools to use and to what end.

Finally, choice is about empowerment and responsibility – for all of us.  Everyone makes choices, everyone chooses.  Everyone should also think, therefore, about what they are choosing and why, and ask what values are reflected in their choices.

Every time we think for ourselves and make a choice (however small) toward a sustainable future, the universe shifts.  Mass culture would tell us of the futility of our individual choices and actions, but from the perspectives of history and experience, this is simply not true.

We still choose the future.  We just need to think more clearly about the choices we are making toward it, if we want to live in a sustainable world.