Decomposing Technology’s Relationship With Society

the edge...

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic

We now belong to the global consumer class. WorldWatch Institute shares the fact that the 12 percent of the world’s population lives in North America and Western Europe, yet accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources. However, developing countries are becoming the new emerging consumers. With China and India’s consumer population (those who can afford more than basic sustenance) making up 16 percent of their population (vs. 89 percent for Europe), we are looking at the potential for explosive growth in global consumerism. And, while the average person on Earth is using 2.3 hectares of biologically productive land for resources and to absorb waste, it is estimated that there are only 1.9 hectares available for each person [1].

Technologies that we are consuming are introducing unintended side effects, from destroying the environment to creating health and ethical dilemmas, and even changing our culture. I am neither a philosopher nor an environmentalist, but as a technologist, I believe we need to rethink and reshape our relationship with technology. While nobody can know where this journey will take us, through analyzing and understanding impacts of technology, I hope to revisit and reshape our technology design and development practices.

Perhaps it all goes back to the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire for humans — our first piece of technology. Fire symbolizes our possession of knowledge, enabling civilization and progress. And, perhaps because of Zeus’ revenge via Pandora, we are forever doomed to pain and suffering at the hand (or user interface) of our creations.

The concept of technology takes its roots from the ancient Greeks. In  ancient times, technology was more than “gadgets”; it was mostly about the craftsmen passing their know-how, the art of doing things, from generation to generation, and improving and innovating along the way. As the terminology evolved, it also acquired a scientific context: the etymology of technology indicates that in 1859 the meaning “science of the mechanical and industrial arts” was first recorded, followed by the terms “high technology” in 1964 and “high-tech” in 1972.

Today, technology is everywhere. Our culture and society is entangled with technology, creating a complex web. It is an invisible force with its own power and influence that shapes our interactions, values, behavior and beliefs. The profound impact of technology can affect and transform societies, environments and economies; just think of the printing press, clocks, the electric light, telephone, internet, health care and climate change.

I am a technologist who specializes in product and technology management. I have worked with startups and large teams, developing products for a variety of different markets. And, my experience has thought me that technology is all about people: from its creation and development to its dissemination and retirement. Yet, our engineering programs have little to no coverage of humanities issues when it comes to technology design and development. With that, I have started this blog to explore and understand how technology affects our lives, and how we can steer technology design and development for better impact. Topics of conversations will include discussions on:

  • What is technology, what drives it, how does it evolve and who controls it? If technology is an instrument for achieving human goals, how do our values, choices and tradeoffs shape technology, and vice versa?
  • What is the symbiotic relationship we have with technology? How do we collectively shape and evolve each other, and how can we manage something that is difficult to predict and control?
  • How social, political and cultural values, biases, constraints and belief systems influence the design of technology from conception to diffusion and support?
  • Why do we need to reevaluate our existing product and technology development and management frameworks, processes and methods. And how do we do it?
  • How does this apply to current issues such as women’s role in technology, education and technology, environmental impacts, control of information, big data, content and copyright, identity and privacy?

Through this reflective examination of how technology effects and transforms societies, environments and cultures, I hope to revisit our practice of engineering. If nothing else, my goal is to bring mindfulness to our creative process. I hope you will join me in these explorations.

[1] WorldWatch Institute — “The State of Consumption Today


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