One of the most memorable conversations of 2021 arose from unexpected circumstances. During a dinner over Thanksgiving break, my partner’s brother, Austin, needed to grab something from the local market. I’d been sedentary and gorging myself all weekend, so I volunteered to walk with him. We’d never interacted in a 1:1 setting before so I was curious what we’d talk about.
To my pleasant surprise, we hit the ground running as soon as we set off. No pleasantries or idle comments about the weather. We quickly covered artificial intelligence, remote teaching (he’s a teacher), and a smattering of other topics. But one in particular dominated the discussion — the pros and cons of technology.
For brevity, I’ll paraphrase our respective stances. Austin argued that technology is net negative to humanity. While I, as the tech startup employee, argued that technology is net positive. In hindsight, as with most things, we were both right.
We had such an engaging conversation, and I knew I’d need to process it later especially since I instinctively knew that technology brings changes both good and bad, and therefore got the sinking feeling we may have missed something as we each laid out our arguments and counterarguments.
After stumbling upon a twenty year old website, I realize what I’d missed. It’s not about what technology, but rather how it’s being applied. The site refers to this concept as technorealism — a bridge between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism.
Over two decades and many technological advances later, the principles of technorealism still speak to me loud and clear.
- Technologies are not neutral. The greatest challenge with machine learning is bias. No data set that powers an algorithm is ever fully representative. Equally worrying is that these biases compound exponentially at scale. But most concerning is that these biases are a black box to us. A human may not have made the right decision because of their own biases, but at least we can get to the why. We can’t blindly assume that more decisions driven by algorithms is better.
- The internet is revolutionary, but not utopian. Virtual reality is undeniably one of the most revolutionary technologies today, but that doesn’t make it utopian. Over a decade ago, Ready Player One suggested as much. The metaverse may eventually change how we experience the internet but it first needs to solve a much more pressing problem — rampant harassment and assault. We can’t look to the internet to solve all our problems.
- Government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier. Tech companies had decades to consolidate their position and dominate markets before the government finally decided to step in. Just because tech companies have loftier mission statements than the oil and finance companies of old doesn’t mean that unchecked power won’t stifle innovation and create negative ramifications. Even tech companies themselves recognize this! Microsoft has repeatedly called for regulation of facial recognition software, and the government needs to step up before it’s too late.
- Information is not knowledge. We live in an echo chamber, constantly getting spammed by and consuming an overwhelming amount of messages, articles, and ads. Everyone has a voice and it’s amplified with technology. We find ourselves getting yelled at — unable to turn off all the voices — while our attention flits from one stimulant to the next. Information is plentiful, yet knowledge is harder than ever to come by. We don’t need more information; we need to reason and make sense of what we already have.
- Wiring the schools will not save them. COVID was the ultimate experiment. It’s still too early to make any sweeping conclusions, but it sure seems like not all learning can be replicated or accelerated by technology. Even pre-COVID, technology in the classroom had not meaningfully improved learning outcomes. We teach more of the same things (e.g. math, history, english), but not necessarily the right things (e.g. problem solving, adaptability, how to learn, resilience, collaboration).
- Information wants to be protected. Identity and privacy has finally drawn our attention in the past five to ten years. While it’s still a largely one-sided battle in favor of the tech companies who provide services in favor of collecting and selling your data, there’s a slowly growing awareness and resistance to the fragmentation and exploitation of our personal data.
When considering how technology is applied, it’s worth pointing out that technology is merely a means to an end. That end, in this case, is the continuation of the human race. So with that in mind, I propose one additional principle.
The survival of humanity is increasingly volatile. We can talk to friends and family all over the world, research life-extending medicines, and build spaceships to explore potentially habitable planets. But we also build weapons that can wipe us off the face of the planet, are more distracted than ever from existential issues like climate change, and continue to widen the inequality gap between those who have and those who don’t. Simply put, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. Technology creates many more paths to survival, but at what cost? Are we destined to survive in the metaverse like the Fermi paradox suggests, existing solely in a digital world?
I’m grateful for the conversation that night with Austin. It prompted me to evaluate my own views on technology with a more critical lens. From a bright-eyed technologist to now a technorealist, I expect my views to continue evolving as technology inevitably progresses. I, for one, still believe we can find ways to apply technology in the right ways that will best serve humanity, and am as energized as ever to play my small part in doing so.