How do we decide what technology to embrace and what technology to avoid?
Back in the late 1900s Howard Rheingold wrote an essay for Wired Magazine called Look Who’s Talking, about an Amish community in Pennsylvania in the US.
I’ve thought about it often since I first read it, and referenced it many times.
He described their unique approach to using technology in their day-to-day lives and specifically their general criteria for what technology is accepted in their community:
Does it bring us together or draw us apart?
So, for example, buttons on clothes are frowned upon, because they are a sign of individuality, but telephones are allowed, as long as they are located outside of the house, where they don’t interrupt conversation between family members.
The article describes the drawn out process these communities use to come to consensus around these questions. Interestingly they allow for experimentation and for people to change their minds. Something new is used not because it’s been approved but because somebody tries it. Then they see what effect it has and debate whether that is something they think is net positive or not.
We can agree or disagree with their view of the world (and there are some quite problematic aspects, for sure), but I don’t think we can fault them for having a values-based way of making decisions about this sort of thing.
We all like to pretend that we are in control of the technology we use.
But, think about this …
Or are we mostly responding to all of those things whenever they demand our attention?
Here’s one simple test: when you are talking in-person with somebody else and your phone rings or buzzes, do you pick it up immediately and look at it? If so, what does that say about your relative priorities in that moment? Are you choosing to be present with the people who already have your attention or assuming that whatever is triggering the notification - which could be anything - is more interesting or important?
Or another one: switch the website you’re trying to read to use “Reader Mode” in your browser. If the site is better then you’re probably the product that site is trying to sell, rather than a customer they are trying to serve.1
The reality, for many of us, is we are not mindful about how we use technology and as a result we end up being controlled and manipulated.
There are actually quite a few historic examples of people who have thought about this much more deeply than we seem to in the modern era.
For example the Luddites. They became famous for damaging machines at new textile factories in the early 1800s, angry that these developments were destroying their craft and resulting in unemployment and poor working conditions. Now we just use their name as a word to demean anybody who is opposed to anything new.
It’s easy to look down on the Amish and Luddites and think they are just fighting the tide of progress. But, we’re all fighting the tide of progress - some of us just put up more resistance than others.
I used to mock my dad for his slow but conscientious two finger typing. But now I watch myself fumble around in 3D-worlds that my kids can navigate so easily and realise that history has repeated, it’s just the tools that have changed.
The difficult news is there will be more and more of these decisions for us to make, individually and collectively, as new technology waves break:
Smart Devices, Social Media, Robots, Drones, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Virtual and/or Augmented Reality, Remote and Distributed Work, “Smart” Assistants, Plant-based Meat + Milk, Machine Vision, Autonomous Vehicles (Cars, Trucks + Boats), Genetic Modification + Bio-hacking, etc etc.
In other words, all of the things I’d be reading about in Wired if I still read magazines.
How confident are we that we will make mindful decisions about which of these things being us together and which draw us apart?