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.