Article review: “As technology gets better, will society get worse?”

Article review: “As technology gets better, will society get worse?

A recent article by Tim Wu for the New Yorker entitled “As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?” illustrates insightfully the relationship that technological evolution has on humanity.

Wu writes: “Imagine that two people are carving a six-foot slab of wood at the same time. One is using a hand-chisel, the other, a chainsaw. If you are interested in the future of that slab, whom would you watch?”

The above scenario suggests that biological evolution (the chisel) is replaced by technological evolution (the chainsaw) as the main driver of redefining what it means to be human (the slab of wood). The reason for this being, “the devices we use change the way we live much faster than any contest among genes.” Using the Oji-Cree, an indigenous people of North America, as an example, Wu’s article illustrates how technology can redefine a population.  

The Oji-Cree traditionally led a relatively simple life that was full of exercise, rivalling that of professional athletes. A lot of this was just to survive; from sleeping in tents/cabins, using dog sleds/canoes for transport and hunting for food.

After the 1960s, modern technologies (e.g. internal combustion engine, electricity) were introduced as trucks began making the trip north, and the OjiCree eagerly embraced these new tools. In our lingo, we might say that they went through a rapid evolution, advancing through hundreds of years of technology in just a few decades.Life became more comfortable as food was easily imported and stored, travelling became less laborious, using motor boats and snow mobiles, and sweets, alcohol and TV were increasingly enjoyed.

“The problem with technological evolution is that it is under our control and, unfortunately, we don’t always make the best decisions,” writes Wu.

With the good came the bad – in just a short time from the arrival of new technologies, massive increases in health and social problems occurred, ranging from morbid obesity and heart disease to idleness and suicide.

Biological evolution is driven by what is needed for the survival and reproduction of a species. Technological evolution, however, is driven by what we want and how easily it comes, and technological evolution is faster than biological evolution at changing the way people live, just as the chainsaw is faster than the chisel at carving a slab wood. The Oji-Cree way of living changed at a rate quicker than their ability to effectively adapt.

Wu wonders: “Will that type of evolution take us in desirable directions, as we usually assume biological evolution does?”

Technology has allowed the world to connect – it has allowed for more efficiency and a greater outreach onto the global market as the world becomes more accessible. For employees, technology gives the possibility of a more flexible working environment, allowing people to work anywhere but still be connected to colleagues. For us designers, it has allowed for more streamlined workflows, through software such as AutoCAD and Revit, which improve project delivery and allow us to work together more effectively.

However, just as with the Oji-Cree, technology can allow things to change quickly, easily and without being questioned. For instance, in the world of social media, applications like Facebook and Instagram can be useful platforms to become digitally connected to the world, enabling connections with old friends, finding out about new things and places, and keeping up to date with current affairs; all from the comfort of your chair.

The problem is that as the world becomes more connected digitally, it may become more disconnected physically. People have become more and more fascinated with updating their Facebook status and following the lives of C-list celebrities getting paid to stay in a house or a jungle. The real/personal experience of being somewhere, being with people, trying new things, is somewhat displaced by the fantasy/distant experience provided by technology. Without that personal input, all you are interacting with is a screen.

I have experienced the tense atmosphere of a title-defining premier league match; the deeply affecting feeling of walking through the Jewish Museum in Berlin; the frenzy of seeing The Prodigy play live. Would you get the same feeling/experience using a screen? I think not.

In the office, instant messaging (such as Lync or Jabber) can be a useful tool to connect instantly with colleagues, particularly when you’re not sure if they want to be disturbed. However, when the person you are contacting is sat very near you, this can add a feeling of distance to your communications. It is easy to let it make you increasingly reluctant to bother with a face-to-face conversation, and I believe we are all, at least occasionally, guilty of this (myself included).

And don’t get me started with Pokemon Go – I must save that for another post.

Wu concludes: “The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests. It has both the opportunity and the means to reach for something higher. And, as consumers, we should remember that our collective demands drive our destiny as a species, and define the posthuman condition.”

Reflecting on this in relation to the workplace, the technology available to us should be the means to push the boundaries of what can be achieved. But perhaps it is up to us, the users, to question the current thinking of what is and use the technology to define what could be.

 

Rory Haughian is an architect and designer in AECOM’s Strategy Plus team, based in London.

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