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I’ve been having a crisis of confidence in technology. Not because of the harm that people and companies do with technology, but because of all the ways that tech may not matter very much.
Think about some of the big issues that Americans are facing, in no particular order: the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, disagreements over the appropriate role of government, a reckoning over systemic racism, inequality in wealth and health, increases in homicides and other public safety threats and educational and social safety systems that fail many people.
Technology didn’t cause these problems, nor should we put too much faith that technology can solve them. I worry that when we vilify or glorify what technology and tech companies do, it makes us lose focus on what’s actually important.
Technology is part of the solution, perhaps, but mostly we have to find the answers through collective human will and effective action.
It’s not Uber’s fault alone that work can be precarious and many Americans have trouble making ends meet. Jeff Bezos may be delusional for wishing to move polluting industries to space, but Amazon is also not really responsible for warming the earth. And likewise, if Facebook intervened more in misleading online information, it wouldn’t erase the root causes of Americans’ doubts about vaccines, nor would our children be totally safe if schools had facial recognition cameras.
We can see the ways that humans have deployed technology as tools for good, and we need to do more to mitigate the downsides of technology in our world. But I also fear that we — and me, too — overvalue technology’s importance.
I’ll give you a glimpse into my contradictory feelings about both the power and the impotence of technology.
There have been reflections in the last few days about how the U.S. government misled the public about the devastating effects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 76 years ago.
That kind of official misdirection or denials about war and abuses still happens, but it is more difficult in part because of the prevalence of technology like phone cameras, Facebook and Twitter that enable anyone to show their truth to the world. Thinking about what has changed since World War II made me feel optimistic about the ways that technology has helped empower us with information and a voice.
But I also worry about what technology can’t really change. My colleague Somini Sengupta wrote this week that it is technologically feasible for the countries most responsible for spewing planet-warming gases into the atmosphere to shift faster to clean energy and stop destroying forests. But those choices are contentious, disruptive, expensive and difficult for many of us to accept.
Climate change and other deep-seated problems are hard to confront, and it’s tempting to distract ourselves by hoping that technology can save the day. Unrealistic optimism about driverless car technology has made some policymakers think twice about transit projects or other measures to reduce emissions. My colleagues have written about concerns that the pursuit of technologies to suck large amounts of carbon from the air might allow industries to put off doing more to prevent harmful emissions in the first place.
Ambitious technologies can be part of the answer to our collective challenges, as long as we put them in perspective.
I am grateful for improved data-crunching that has helped scientists better understand the impacts of climate change. Tech advances including Tesla’s electric cars make it more feasible for politicians and the public to imagine shifting transportation and energy grids.
It’s easy to misdiagnose the causes of our problems and hope for relatively painless solutions. But technology isn’t magic and there are no quick fixes.