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Is Tech So Terrible?

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

We seem to love stories of monsters and machines made by men that come back to haunt us. Is this the deep story of technology? Do the tech creations we make end up conquering us?

There are powerful strains in the popular imagination about the perils of technology. Were not the Holocaust and Hiroshima the diabolical product of racism yoked to powerful technologies?  And today, aren't our kids getting addicted to social media, which is making them anxious and depressed?

Instagram and Snapchat are modern technology scapegoats. Psychologist Jean Twenge argues that the onset of smartphones coincided with the epidemic of teen anxiety and depression. Of course correlation is not causation, and some academics are skeptical of her conclusions. I'm skeptical because I've heard this before about "the kids these days."

In the 19th century adults worried that the novel would rot brains. There were similar worries about bicycles, cars, jazz, radio, movies, TV, rock and roll, comic books and then video games. (No, video games don't cause young people to be violent.) If you want to see a humorous history of social panics, check out The Pessimists Archive

Given our solid history of fear mongering--no, TV and comic books didn't ruin a generation. My mom grew up listening and dancing to jazz and she didn't become a social deviant--I think the burden of proof is on tech skeptics like Twenge to demonstrate that new tech--like smart phones and social media--is bad for us. 

So let’s look at the benefits of tech by starting with what's in your pocket or purse. I like my smartphone. While I did get addicted to cigarettes and alcohol (and quit both a long time ago), I am not addicted to my phone. I like everything it has—my calendar, my address book/contacts, the weather, a flashlight, social media, the news, my blog, a voice recorder, all my music.... You know, everything fits on that smartphone.

It’s great. I think about all the grandparents who can get pictures of their family, all the friends who can keep in touch with friends via phone or text or whatever. In our family there's always a multigenerational game of Words With Friends going on despite the hundreds of miles between us. And what about the LGBT kids who grow up in Straightsville, USA, who, thanks to technology, can connect with people like them? How about elderly shut ins and people with disabilities who are looking for community? All this tech, all the games and gadgets, all the ways to connect, are options. Instead of vilifying technology, let’s help people use it in moderation, but it ain't crack. I can do tech in moderation but I still struggle with doing dessert with moderation. There are things I can do to moderate behaviors that don't serve me. The same is true of tech.

Looking beyond smart phones and social media, let's remember how technology prevents and solves problems. I love the back-up camera on my car and the blind-spot sensors. I was in a crash recently and thank God the airbags deployed. Cars are safer, period.  Planes are safer. Scanners, be they in TSA or at the cancer clinic, are better. Pacemakers and medical equipment are better. Fire safety breakthroughs--smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, CO detectors--save lives. One element of the historically low levels of crime around the world is technology. Widespread use of observation cameras and moneyball crime stats software mean crime is deterred and bad guys are caught.

There are downsides of tech. Anything can be addictive. But just as we under-appreciate good news, so too do we fail to appreciate the upsides of tech.

So when you think that the world's moving too fast because of fancy new technology, look at the big picture. The tech from 30 and 50 years ago didn't warp our brains but much of it saved our lives. There's no reason to think that the new technologies are significantly different. And all the life-saving technologies in hospitals, in our cars, and in our homes make life much better.

And in other good news...

While we've been fearing ebola pandemics, the scientists got down to work and found a cure

New research claims that people who take their prescribed osteoporosis medications cut their mortality risk by a third

Protesters in Hong Kong and Russia are taking the streets against the autocrats that rule them. Roll democracy roll!

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