Has society become controlled by technology?


We live in a world where the use of technology is accelerating at breakneck speed. From cell phones and video games to smart appliances and social networks, with each passing day, technology becomes more a part of everyday life. If you feel like you’re caught in a speeding current of bits and bytes that seems to be carrying you away from the world you knew, away from a place of comfort – know that you’re not alone. This is the lifescape of the 21st century. But is technology in control? Absolutely not! Society is no more controlled by technology than Bill was by Hillary.

The fact is that technology is a tool and nothing more. The history of the world clearly tells the tale of technology, and it’s obvious to the most casual observer that the great societies have always been those who took advantage of the technologies of their time. From the earliest of humans who first tamed fire, to contemporary times, the societies who best leveraged technology rose to the top. Did the wheel of ancient Mesopotamia control that society? How about the use of iron in ancient Greece and Rome? The steam engine, telephone, electric light, airplane? Has any technology ever controlled any society? The answer is a loud and resounding NO!

Society controls technology – period. It’s that plain and simple. If our current society found no utility in the technologies of our time, then those technologies would follow the path of the kerosene lamp. It’s no accident that the products of the past eventually either become extinct or relegated to some nostalgic use. Would you like to have horses and buggies impeding the flow of traffic on your local freeway? Would you prefer that we still fetched water from a hand pump or did our duty in an outhouse? I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the answer is “No.”

After all, I don’t see the ranks of the Amish threatening to deplete our urban populations. There doesn’t seem to be any mass movement to turn in our TV’s, lose our laptops or hang up our high-speed Internet. Mobile phones certainly don’t appear to be in any immediate danger (currently over 4 billion in use worldwide). Blackberries, iPods, plasma screens, Blu-Ray: the demand is consumer driven, and so long as the average citizen finds value in technology our society will continue to push it forward. Yes, even those family-focused Amish rely on technology, perhaps not modern computers and the like, but the technology with which they feel comfortable – the technology their society finds useful.

Since the dawn of humankind, each generation has been born into a given mix of technology, and each generation has experienced the inventions and technological progress of its time. I was born midway through the Baby Boom, and therefore feel reasonably comfortable with modern technology, but it is not my native environment. I feel nostalgic about old cars, free concerts, record players and the Wonderful World of Disney. My children, however, are Net Natives. They feel no such nostalgia. Their world started with computer technology and the Internet. They thrive on information and drink from the cup of always connected / anywhere access as easily as we took to television and air travel. What’s new to one generation is standard fare to the next. This transition is a natural part of life. We went through it, as did our parents and their parents before them.

So, why this notion that now technology is somehow taking control? Why the uneasiness? I contend that the root cause is twofold. First up is the rate of technological change. The simple truth is that we are living in exponential times. Things are changing faster now than at any point in history. Technological innovation is a synergistic process, and where it once took decades, if not centuries, for one innovation to feed the next, breakthroughs are now as regular as the sunrise.

For many of us, this new pace is a bit overwhelming, but whether or not we feel comfortable progress will continue to accelerate. Moore’s Law, dating back to 1965, states roughly that computing power will double every two years. More recent estimates set the rate closer to every 18 months. Butter’s Law, stated some 35 years later, holds that the amount of data possible to transmit through a fiber optic cable doubles every nine months. Both laws hold true to this day, and experts contend that they will remain relevant until they are replaced by the next computing paradigm a decade hence.

Yes, advances in technology are here to stay. They’ve been a part of life on Earth since we humans had our first thought. We are in control, not the technology. Technology answers our demands. It serves our purposes. Oddly enough, it may even be the answer to our worries over potential harm. It is the product of our thinking, and yet we worry – but it’s not really the technology that troubles us.

Do we really fear that intelligent machines will seize control, that the Matrix or Terminator may become reality? I think not. Fear of an uncertain future is without doubt the second of the twofold cause, but it’s not fear of technology controlling society. It’s fear of unscrupulous people of power using technology for purposes that do not serve the wellbeing of the many but rather the few. And at a foundational level, it’s fear of somehow losing our own humanity.

Within each of us lies the seed of these fears. We know too well the temptation of the siren’s song and the slow simmer into complacency. Who among us has not, at one time or another, taken the path of the pawn, choosing to do nothing, our only alibi our perceived powerlessness? We know that it takes discipline to resist the seduction of power, fortitude to maintain our principles against the throng, and dedication to engage when we doubt the impact. It is this knowledge that causes us to doubt, but it’s also this very knowledge that must spur us into action. If we are to prevent an Orwellian dystopia, then our voices must be heard. If we are to maintain our humanity, then we must connect as people.

It’s high time for all Non-Net Natives to cease their resistance and move beyond their nostalgic laments. Modern technology need not be feared, but if it is to serve its highest purpose, it must be controlled. We are not victims of the rampant spread of technology but rather its beneficiaries, and even more importantly, its conservators. Together we have the power. As members of society, it is our responsibility to ensure that technology properly serves our needs. It is our duty to minimize its misuse, leverage its potential and cast its place for posterity.

Contrary to what some may think, technology does not make people lazy, nor does it render its practitioners as a society of helpless people. Technology is what society makes it. Technology enables us to do things that are otherwise not possible. Technology has indeed made the world smaller. It has brought us all together in ways that would have been hard to imagine just a decade ago. We can now connect as never before. If used properly, technology will help us to create a better future. It will help to cure disease, improve communication, enhance understanding, solve our energy needs, and level the playing field for one and all. If misused, it could lead to the destruction of the planet. In either case, it won’t be the technology controlling that future. It will be, as it has always been: the values and actions of the society will paint the tapestry of its tomorrows.

  16 Responses to “Has society become controlled by technology?”

  1. technology may not control society in many respects, but it certainly shapes it. i can think of over 100 differernt examples, one being the invention of the road, the creations of many dozens of traffic laws, traffic control systems, pay-parking, neighborhood structures etc. etc. thanks to a certain technology we know as the car. that is one example of shaping, now look at the car’s abilities to control your driving, sensors built in to detect poor driving, correcting you, it will brake if you haven’t already when approaching other objects, automated windscreen wipers. they decide how difficult it is becoming for you to see out of the windscreen when it is raining and alter the rate of how often the screen is wiped each minute. you have to ask at what point do shaping and controlling become one? and whether it’s really a bad thing?

    • I’ll accept the nuanced relationship between shaping and control, but yours is still, at best, a chick and egg scenario. Yes, technology has its impact on society, but technology doesn’t spontaneously manifest from the ether. Society drives both the demand for and supply of technology. The dynamic that you present is nothing more than the feedback loop of a self-reinforcing system. Society demands entertainment, productivity, functionality, accessibility, whatever the case, and tools are used by that society to respond to those demands; the product of that process becomes an integral part of the new baseline, providing input to a repetitive cycle in which the demands are again introduced, the tools utilized again, and further “advances” are made. No matter how you slice it, throughout this dynamic, society is the subject and technology the object. Society isn’t even “shaped” by technology — society is shaped by society’s “use” of technology.

  2. “Society controls technology – period. It’s that plain and simple.”

    have fun explaining the technology of speed cameras and how they don’t control behaviour to remove any undesirable actions that may be present in society behind the wheels of a 4.0L mustang…

    • Yours is a red herring argument. Arguing how a given technology impacts a specific behavior has no bearing on the larger question of whether society controls technology or vice-versa. Was it a machine that decided to utilize your speed camera? Was it the behavior of a machine that the camera was installed to correct? Your argument is lost in the weeds, focused on the trees and blind to the forest.

  3. To understand modern technology as a tool and nothing more than a tool is to not really understand modern technology. Modern technology is not any isolated instance of applying technique. It is a system in which we live, whether we want to or not (somewhere along the line of industrial development we lost the ability to choose). An isolated instance of technology may not have the power to impose itself upon us, but a technological system certainly does. Who is in charge of weapons systems, for instance? Certainly not you or I. Someone or something else is, and it is worrying that in a technological society it is increasingly difficult to tell who or what that could be. It seems more and more difficult to tell what this impersonal system is that surrounds us and forces us to arrange our lives according to its parameters.

    • Good arguments! But it’s too bad that they don’t support your primary point. Is modern technology “an isolated instance of applying technique?” Obviously not, but what does that have to do with whether or not technology is a “tool?” The answer is NOTHING! The application of technology is still driven by human beings . . . using their selected tools. The grip technology has upon our society was not the result of some spontaneous spawning, but rather the result of other societal factors, too numerous to go into in this comment. We live within a system in which technology has become deeply integrated, but each and every one of us are free to stop using modern technology at any chosen time. We don’t withdraw because we choose to not do so, and we have a society that’s deeply dependent upon technology because of human choice. Society (the user of technology) obviously controls the technology (the tool). And unless HAL, Terminator, or the Matrix come to pass, it can be no other way.

  4. Hi, I’m only 14 and I don’t really understand what is being said in this article. Is there any way you could give a general statement about the use of technology in society in not so complex wording. Thanks.

    • Hi Christiano,
      I’m sorry that the article seems to complex. My real point is just this: while it may appear that society is being controlled by technology in the 21 Century, it is really ALWAYS the society that’s actually in control. Society makes the decisions and uses technology as a tool to achieve the desired results. In the modern world, we are reliant upon technology, but that doesn’t mean that technology is in control. People decide what technologies are needed, what technology will be used for, how technology will be accessed . . . until we get to the world depicted in the Terminator movies, or the Matrix or something, it will remain society that controls technology.

      That’s about all I know to say in a general way, but if you have any specific questions, I’d be happy to answer.

      Thanks for commenting,

      • Ah, I understand now. Although it may seem that technology is controlling us because it has such frequent and extensive use in society, the FACT is that society is still in control.

        Thanks for clearing this up for me Dave

  5. hello Dave,
    can you please explain to me how we are in control of technology with an example
    Thank You.

    • Hi Dara,
      It’s a simple matter of the market dynamics. Consumers create demand, and companies respond by creating supply. Yes, much of the demand is for items that aren’t really “needed”, but even that perceived need is created by people and societal systems, by marketing and keeping up with the Jones. There’s nothing stopping us from collectively stepping away from technology. Just look at the Amish. We do seem addicted to technology as a society, but it’s still a choice, and we’re the choosers.

      Be Well,

  6. Excellent article. I completely agree with every point you discussed! Very good!

  7. Hey, Dave.
    You present good arguments but your article is biased in the way that it only supports your viewpoint. It was not really mentioned the viewpoints of whom might disagree with you. How many people do you know that still have the original box t-vs instead of a flat screen? or how many people do you know that don’t use toasters but instead the grill? do you use a car or still travel by horse, like our ancestors? Although, no. In theroy, there isn’t a big robot mastermind controlling society but instead the big companies controlling us little guys with their technology. Times evolve and we MUST evolve with it. I think today’s society as a big technology food chain. The government at the top, profiting from the money that companies make from selling technology. Next, those companies creating the next big thing that every person will leap over heads to get, then us little people at the bottom. I was recently cut off from acess to the school computers because of over due school fees (i’m sixteen completing grade eleven) and it was very, very hard to complete any subjects without this “privledge”. Teachers assume that every kid has a computer at home or acess to one and sets tasks that was imposible for me to do. Really, i’m just saying, we rely on it too much. everyone does. Don’t really disagree with you.
    although, we’d all be screwed if one day all the technology in the world just stopped working. With evolution, we have forgotten to get our hands dirty and do things ourselves. xD

  8. An example of the disruptive impact of a hot technology succeeding a cool one is given by Robert Theobald in The Rich and the Poor. When Australian natives were given steel axes by the missionaries, their culture, based on the stone axe, collapsed. The stone axe had not only been scarce but had always been a basic status symbol of male importance. The missionaries provided quantities of sharp steel axes and gave them to women and children. The men had even to borrow these from the women, causing a collapse of male dignity. A tribal and feudal hierarchy of traditional kind collapses quickly when it meets any hot medium of the mechanical, uniform, and repetitive kind.

  9. If you think about it, technology does have its ways of controlling people, but not in the ways described in the article. My brother gets easily absorbed into video games, and it takes a little more than a call of his name to get his attention. Not only does he shut himself off from the world, but he would rather others make decisions for him because he is too busy playing games to choose for himself. If the entire country were like this, could you imagine what would happen to democracy? Everyone would go with what the president or dictator wants. So perhaps it’s not the technology controlling society, but perhaps it’s leading to more catastrophic things in the future.

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