Technology makes so much possible—but at what cost?
When humans used the first stone tools to increase the force they could exert, or crafted the earliest footwear so they could go longer without hurting feet, it also meant their hands and feet weren’t directly acting on surfaces.
Fast-forward to today. The same masks that helped keep my patients and I safe through a global pandemic also hide the bottom half of my face.
Each of these things—stone tools, shoes, masks—is a form of technology, extending our capabilities, allowing us to do more, go farther, live longer.
I’m using “technology” in its broadest sense here, of course, well beyond computers and such. In this sense, we can define technology as that which increases our leverage over the natural world. But it does so at a cost: each layer of technology introduces a layer of abstraction between us and the natural world.
We see this in everything, from books to Zoom.
Books as a technology increased the leverage of ideas across time. Once a book was written it could be preserved indefinitely in a way spoken words couldn’t. But books also added abstraction: text lacks the tone and pitch of voice and the ability to question the speaker live. And while the printing press ensured made it easier to reproduce countless copies, it also took away the personal engagement of the copier.
What technology gives in one place, it takes away in another.
As a more recent technology, Zoom increases the leverage of our communication. Like other video calling services, it connects us across space and time zones—at the cost of physical space and touch and their attendant health benefits. It’s not for nothing the entire world can’t wait to freely return to coffee shops and concert halls.
But the trade-offs of technology don’t stop at abstraction: it, in turn, leads to two further trade-offs to serendipity and accessibility.
Technology & serendipity
Technology tends to reduce serendipity. The natural world is complex, with elements interacting in interrelationships so intricate, it’s hard to predict things. The unexpected is always a possibility, like English weather.
A key way technology increases our ability is by simplifying these interrelationships. That means outcomes are more predictable and consistent, but also that randomness is reduced. But the possibility of the unexpected goes both ways: if we’re unlucky we can also be lucky. If you’re good at keeping your money, you’re also less likely to enjoy the pleasure of finding loose change in your pockets. Minimising the risk of misfortune means serendipity also suffers.
So for instance, books made ideas spreadable and consistent: everyone reading the same book. But the loss of personal interaction also meant a lower likelihood of getting a really bad—or really good—storyteller.
Similarly, coffee shops allow a degree of serendipity you could never get on a Zoom call. Anyone can walk in, you might overhear any conversation or see something interesting.
Technology & accessibility
I’ve described technology as increasing our capabilities but it’s important not to overlook that it just as easily reduces the capabilities of others. And not just disabled people either: accessibility issues affect everyone. With new technology creating new solutions for some it introduces new problems for others.
Zoom is great—if you have a computer and internet access. And if you’re, say, blind, the loss of physical space is even more palpable. And even with as “simple” a technology as reading—well, that involves so many moving parts in our brains and bodies, it’s not surprising that up to 1 in 10 people live with dyslexia. And let’s not even get into the infrastructure required to support a reading habit, like books and teachers not being free.
None of this is a knock on technology. It’s just an inevitable trade-off to be aware of. It shouldn’t stop us from innovating all we can, but it can remind us to be thoughtful as we do.
And that shift is already starting to accelerate.
There’s a weird thing we sometimes do in medicine: we give drugs to relieve the side effects of other drugs. Drugs are a form of technology in themselves, of course: they help extend the capability of our bodies. When the alternative is death or severe disability, many patients will view side effects as an acceptable trade-off. Still, these side effect trade-offs are severe enough that people will sometimes struggle with essential medication, so when they can be relieved, that’s worth considering.
That’s when more medication sometimes comes in: chemical technology to minimise the trade-offs of technology.
Let’s call this meta-technology: the technologies we create to address the trade-offs from other useful technologies. What technologies take, meta-technologies can give back.
Take reading. The accessibility issues it introduced for blind people were mitigated by Braille: which is itself a form of book technology introduced in the early 1800s. Like any technology, it has its challenges of course (including having to even learn it), but it at least means books become more accessible. Fast-forward to audiobooks, which reintroduced at least the element of voice books had first taken. They began about 100 years after Braille as “talking books” for blind people, but as of 2019 were an almost $3 billion market—for everyone.
Most recently we have seen the rise of ephemeral digital media: it started with Snapchat and its disappearing photos and statuses, and then stories that vanish in 24 hours becoming a thing on every single social media. Most recently we’ve seen the rise of Clubhouse and its live audio: with real-time voice conversations, if you miss the moment, you’ve missed the show.
Just like, you know, non-digital life.
Each of these technologies re-introduces serendipity into our online experience. We’ve come full circle from “the internet never forgets” all the way back around to “be there or be square.”
As we go forward it’s worth thinking about being even more deliberate and, with each new innovation, taking the time to ask ourselves two important questions:
- How are we losing serendipity?
- Who might this make things harder for?
As we—hopefully!—come out of a time when a pandemic has shaken everything up, and we rebuild what it means to be human together, now is as good a time as ever to think about what we’re trading off.
Trade-offs are not a problem, it’s we who can be when we don’t think them through.
That’s something we can change.
My thanks to Erik Newhard and Christian Champ for feedback in the early stages of writing this.