It is almost cliché to remark on the wonder of modern technology – which is very much the wonder of computerization. In our time, there are more transistors shocking zeros and ones than there are synapses firing off in all human brains. The calculating power to end worlds fits in the palm of your hand and takes pictures of your brunch: We have beaten swords into over-sharers.
The term “technology” once meant the manner in which a primitive culture used flint or obsidian, or shipbuilding characteristics of a seafaring culture. It was a word describing the “things” a group of people used. Technology is now a culture unto itself, in addition to its role of influencing our sense of reality, or even supplant it altogether.
Seeing as we are all good citizens of the world in the 21st century, we owe it to ourselves to consider how we came to this point, what’s been gained, and what’s been lost. In judging the value of technology, we should ask how it gives us power over our own lives or how it gives power to others over us. We should also ask how it affects our expectations of others and ourselves.
Consider the automobile. A car obviously gives incredible power to an individual. I could hop in my car right now without any more preparation than a thermos and sandwich, and by nightfall find myself in a different biome. This is the result of economic forces to which I am utterly in thrall. I have to pay for gas, registration and insurance, no matter their costs, just to drive as an honest citizen.
Having a car also often means having regular car payments to a bank. Never mind the vast infrastructure on which that freedom depends. Endless roads, interstates, lights, gas stations, fast food and motels – these are so ingrained in daily life that to try and opt out of the system means taking a loss relative to other Americans. An unfavorable option is no option at all. Governments expend vast treasure to maintain the system, and numerous industries take advantage of people needing cars.
And so it is with the computer; every iteration only gets smaller. Each generation of technology promises greater advances and convenience. With the computer, unlike virtually any other technology, the advances are quite drastic. In terms of functionality, the car has changed relatively little in a hundred years. It does the same job of transportation at about the same efficiency. Fine-tunings of the engineering aside, internal combustion doesn’t undergo a breakthrough every five or ten years.
Computers – as desktops, tablets, smartphones and yes, even the fuel injectors that have done much to improve the efficiency of cars – have touched every aspect of life in the West, and certainly in the United States. They are the military, the retailer, the municipal service, the photo album, the medical diagnostic. And why not? The computer is endlessly applicable. Is it so wrong to use a tool to its full capacity?
Humans biologically are the same animals they were ten thousand years ago. I would argue in many ways that humans are also socially the same as they have been over the past roughly five thousand years of recorded history. When we used stone axes, ploughs, rifles, quill pens or books, we became those things partly. A bit of flint in the hand is an amplifier of our bodies’ power; when we put it down, it ceases to be a part of us. We learn the skill, master the tool, and that’s it. When we hold a book in our hands, it’s a little different.
Computer screens have a certain allure that other forms of technology do not inherently have. They are windows into other worlds and, unlike TV, you have complete control over what you see – or so it would seem. Whatever illusions are most appealing or most flattering are the ones that are hardest to avoid, and those are exactly the ones that web developers – and by extension, advertisers – take advantage of.
Computers are the face of modern technology, and it is a very pretty face. Though it may go against intuition, when a pretty face is telling us what we want to hear, we should consider those who we never see, but who nonetheless control this technology.