Does technological liberation have to come at a price?

A good read from Evgeny Morozov at the WSJ: Are Smart Gadgets Making Us Dumb?

Once we step into this magic space, we are surrounded by video cameras that recognize whatever ingredients we hold in our hands. Tiny countertop robots inform us that, say, arugula doesn’t go with boiled carrots or that lemon grass tastes awful with chocolate milk. This kitchen might be smart, but it’s also a place where every mistake, every deviation from the master plan, is frowned upon. It’s a world that looks more like a Taylorist factory than a place for culinary innovation. Rest assured that lasagna and sushi weren’t invented by a committee armed with formulas or with “big data” about recent consumer wants.

I think this is the main point of the argument, and also that it’s basically right. Morozov makes a subtle distinction between technologies that allow us the space for creative expression, for devising innovative means of connecting and relation with one another, and for problem-solving and those that limit these activities and energies by simply making barriers and speed-bumps disappear. Creativity is integral to the human condition, and some ‘good smart’ technologies facilitate this, for example, by facilitating more informed decision making. ‘Bad smart’ technologies, on the other hand, are those that make decisions for us, or shame us into making particular choices.

But his conclusion leaves something to be desired:

Unless designers of smart technologies take stock of the complexity and richness of the lived human experience—with its gaps, challenges and conflicts—their inventions will be destined for the SmartBin of history.

If this is meant to be a warning against the blind, indiscriminate forward march of smart technologies, then I’m afraid it means little. As long as there is a market for technologies that limit us for the sake of ‘improving’ us, a market for the ‘bad smart’ technologies Morozov discusses, then there will be investment in developing them.

Rather, I would put it as follows: unless considerable attempts are made to steer technological progress in a particular direction by policy designed to promote particular smart technologies, and dis-incentivize others, then this distinction between humanistically liberating and conveniently dehumanizing inventions will not be made en masse.

In other words, we need a goal(s) for technology – to liberate, and not to enslave us – and broad-spectrum plans for how to achieve them.

This entry was posted in Innovation, Public Philosophizing, Science and technology ramifications, STEM Policy, TechnoScience & Technoscientism. Bookmark the permalink.

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