The biggest problems of technology are not technical problems but human problems.
While it is indeed true that technology is designed to solve a problem, thereby improving our lives in a certain way, what we don’t often realise is that at the same time, we introduce an array of changes, sometimes anticipated, but more often than not, unanticipated changes that negatively impact our lives and the lives of others.
When we introduce a new piece of technology into our society, into our lives, things change: our processes change, our expectations change, our norms and values change, our behaviours changes, our ideas about ourselves and of the world change.
Sometimes they change for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse, thereby creating more problems which we are often quick to point as problems related to technology (or technological problems).
But these are really human problems. These are the problems that arise and accompany technology at each and every step of its development. These are problems that arise with the introduction of every new piece of technology into our society.
Perhaps no one can really be at fault for this. After all, it is very easy to be blinded by the amazing wonders that technology does, and the amazing benefits that it can bring.
“If it’s so good, how could it be bad?”
Indeed, technology is good. And so, as our attention is fixed on the wonders and marvels of new technologies, and the possible technological solutions that can improve our lives, our families, and our societies, it is so easy to overlook the fact that we ourselves sometimes change in ways that aren’t necessarily for the better.
1. With Improvements Come Higher Expectations
We often carry the belief that technology makes things better for us. But perhaps this is nothing more than a myth that came about from our myopic focus on the mere benefits of technology, away from the context of its societal impact.
A good example for this would be the proliferation of household appliances for the home. While it is true that appliances such as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner have made cleaning less of a chore, what we don’t realise is this: not too long after these appliances were introduced into society, social expectations of cleanliness increased. If you had machines that could clean your house more effectively, why isn’t your house cleaner than before? Societal norms had changed, and for many people at that time, this translated into longer hours spent on household chores.
Even today, something similar is happening in the office. When computers were first introduced as an office productivity tool, the idea was that we can do more with less time spent on work. To many, this invoked dreams of longer hours of leisure, time with family and friends, time to pursue our own interests, passions and goals.
However, this was not to be. For when computers became the norm of office productivity, societal expectations changed once again. “If this employee can now work faster than before, than we can give him twice the amount of work or more for the same pay. What’s the point of paying someone so much only for that person to spend less time working? It is an inefficient expenditure of resources.” And so, while technology has certainly reduced the effort required for certain laborious tasks, societal expectations changed, demanding us to work even harder than before.
As a cultural norm, it can be difficult to cry out that we have reached stressful, ridiculous non-human limits. After all, if everyone else is silent (or silently suffering), why are you the one taking issue with it? It is difficult to go against the norms of society. Voicing out such complaints may invite harsh criticisms: Perhaps you’re just weak, perhaps you’re just incapable.
Or perhaps, the reality is that we’re trying too hard to be machines, and have forgotten how to be human!
2. The Makers of Machines Becoming Machines Themselves
In scripture, we are told that at the beginning of creation, humankind was “made in the image and likeness of God.” (Gen 1:27)
Today, in our modern world, the reverse is happening. Humans, the makers of machines are now making themselves into the image and likeness of machines.
We have thrown away our myth/belief of an almighty, all-knowing, and all-loving god who made us to be as awesome as he is. We have thrown that away and embraced a new god which we have fashioned from our own hands – not in the form of a golden calf (as we read in Exodus) – but in the form of the tools, machines, devices, and systems we have created and installed all around us. We have installed technology as our god because it is perfect in its execution and operation. It is efficient, optimal, and most of all, it is the ideal worker, the ideal contributing member of society.
And so to many of us, we unconsciously model ourselves into the image and likeness of this new god. We assume technology to be perfect in all its running and strive to be as perfect as it is.
Have you ever noticed how when problems arise in a system, we have a tendency to question and fault the humans first? After all, humans are weak, frail, and prone to error.
But how can machines or computers be at fault? It is without the stain of Original Sin, and thus cannot err as we do.
And since our systems, softwares, and machines are perfect in their operations, we seek humans who are as perfect as machines are.
For example, not everyone can be a fighter pilot. Only humans who fit the required physical and mental specifications, to such an extent that we can trust them to be least prone to error, can be admitted as fighter pilots.
Even in factories and in the workplace, employers look for suitable candidates who are skilled and competent in their ability to operate the systems, software or machines with the least possibility of error or inefficiency.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “Be perfect just as the heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
But in our modern world, governments, employers, and even our teachers and peers preach a similar message: “Be perfect just as ours systems are perfect in their operations.”
And just as how we evaluate machines for their efficiency and effectivity, we have developed a tendency – or worse, an obsession – to measure ourselves and other humans in similar terms. Are we productive? Are we efficient? Do we meet or even surpass our KPIs (key performance indicators)?
And as operators of computers and machines, it is easy to derive such measures. Computers can easily log quantifiable statistics of our performance.
And thus, we measure ourselves along these lines without realising that when we do so, we suffer from the terrors of performativity. When we obsess ourselves with measures of performance based on key performance indicators, or measures of productivity and outcomes, we become increasingly focused soles on the functions of our job.
This eats away at the richness of our lives, causing us to care less about other important issues and aspects of our work that cannot be quantified. This eats away at the important things that we should rightly cherish and value in our lives. But because our jobs, our livelihood is so dependent on such performance indicators, we can’t help but to give these measures greater importance, only to neglect everything else that cannot be measured.
As we continue to do this, what we don’t realise is that the entire process of working like a machine slowly eats away at our own personal identity and outlook of life, making us less and less human, and more and more into the image and likeness of the machines we operate.
3. The Need to Critically Assess Our Technologies
Thus far, I have only highlighted two of many ways in which technological problems are really human problems. These have come to be because we have failed to be reflective in the use and implementation of technology in our society.
Technology has brought us many improvements. But what we fail to recognise is that human nature has a tendency to be chaotic, and that human nature has an insatiable greed for more, and and an unending thirst for perfection.
With improvements to the way we work and live, we are unable to sit and live contented lives. We remain dissatisfied, and we strive for greater perfection and productivity. This in turn leads us to demand machine-like perfection and performance on ourselves and on others.
Could our technologies been implemented otherwise? Could these computers and machines and systems be introduced into our societies in ways that make us more human and less machine-like?
But we must be cautious and remember that technological fixes and solutions alone are not sufficient. And even for the situation that we now face, there is no purely technological solution.
Human problems need real human solutions, solutions that treat and adjust the way we think and relate with our own selves, and with the people and the world around us.
When we introduce technologies without a matured human outlook or understanding of its impact, we open Pandora’s box and unleash undesirable forces that are beyond our control.
We need to be more discerning when we create, adopt and introduce new technologies into our society. It is not enough to be smart with all the technical skills and knowledge.
What we need is wisdom.