It’s easy to put sets of beliefs into neat little categories, and I’m not saying this is a bad thing when Adam Gopnik does this in his article “The Information.” It’s a natural thing for us to do, to try and make sense of a complicated and confusing world by simplifying it. Our relationship with technology is complicated, so there’s relief when we simplify society’s relationship with it into three camps. On one extreme of the spectrum there’s the Never-Betters who hail the power and innovation of technology––they’re positive and optimistic. On the other extreme there’s the Better-Nevers who mourn for the past and fear the rapid change of technology––they’re negative and pessimistic. Right in the middle there’s the Ever-Wasers, who like the neutral party they are, believe that technology has always been a thing in modernity and that some people are going to enjoy the change and some people won’t, that these advancements bring positive effects and negative ones.
Like many binaries in life (sexuality or political preference for example) this Never-Better-Better-Never-Ever-Waser categorization falls on a spectrum, a sliding scale if you will and you can fall anywhere in between. These socially constructed binaries are a way of simplifying complicated relationships, and while they’re nice and easy they’re only a start to understanding these relationships and that while we may fall on the spectrum, we can also fall totally outside of it.
I’m not going to spend this blog post deconstructing binaries, and if we’re using Gopnik’s Never-Better-Better-Never-Ever-Waser binary then I’d have to say I fall in the Ever-Waser box, with a slight inclination to Never-Better (but I don’t sport rose-coloured glasses). As for society as a whole, well they’re all over the map and I don’t think you can make such a sweeping generalization to where they fall on the spectrum (or outside of it). As for myself, I don’t believe in new technology being inherently good, and I also don’t believe in it being evil. New technology simply is, and it depends on how we use it that makes it good or bad.
Whenever we’re debating the positives and negatives of our relationship with new technology I always have Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man running through my brain. Yes, this is crazy dated since it’s from the 60s, and wow times certainly have changed, but I think the core of what he was saying still remains. Mark Federman breaks down this phrase in his essay “What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message.” The “message” is not “the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it.” The “medium” is any extension of ourselves, something that allows us “to do more than our bodies could do on their own.” The point that McLuhan is trying to make is that we can understand the nature of these innovations through the behavioral changes they create within our society. It’s not the content of the internet that matters, it’s how it changes our behaviour that reveals something about us and therefore the medium (the internet). The medium is neither good nor bad, it’s how we interact with it that decides that.
Which brings me to Frank Chimero’s piece “The Good Room,” where he writes “technology’s influence is not a problem to solve through dominance; it’s a situation to navigate through clear goals and critical thinking. Attentiveness is key.” It’s this critical thinking that is key when we engage with technology. We need to consider if what we’re doing is for the betterment of society or not. Unfortunately, what a “better” world is depends on the person you ask. This blog post is not going to deconstruct the values of good and evil and the subjectivity of that either.
Technologies live and die, change and evolve and they are always going to benefit someone, and simultaneously be a detriment to someone else. It all depends on who you are and how you’ll use the new innovation. One can hope for that utopian vision of open knowledge and the infinite expansion of the mind, and hopefully prevent a Terminator-esque robot take-over dystopia but in the end the choice is yours.