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Technology: Good or Bad?

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the sociological effects of technology. Few people would deny that technology has had a huge effect on our lives, and some would say that it’s probably had more effect than any other aspect of human endeavour, such as politics, religion, business, the arts, or even pure science. I agree this is debatable and many of the areas are inter-related – for example, science leads to technology which is used by business and coordinated by politics – but let’s just agree that it is important.

So what sort of effects are we talking about here and are they good or bad on balance? You probably won’t be surprised to know that I, as an IT professional and technology enthusiast, think that on balance the effects have been strongly positive.

There are several common complaints people have about technology. One is that using technology is addictive and people spend too much time with it. We hear about afflictions like “internet addiction” even though, as far as I am aware, this is an not officially recognised condition. Another common “addiction” is over-use of computer and console games. I’m sure there are examples of gamers whose lives have been significantly affected but I doubt whether it’s as common as is often claimed.

Another alleged problem is how technology causes people to disconnect from society. Social internet sites, like Facebook, are alleged to result in people interacting on-line instead of in person. Again this is usually suggested without any corroborating evidence.

There’s also the claim that people use technology where they would previously have used their own brain. For example, many people can’t do basic arithmetic because their computer does that for them, or they don’t remember phone numbers because they are all stored in their cell phones, or they can’t read maps because all their navigation is done with a GPS device. I’m sure this is true in many cases but isn’t that what technology is for? Doesn’t it take over some of the more mundane tasks we would normally do ourselves so we can concentrate on more complex and important things? Of course, this theory only works if their are more important things to worry about, but I think in most cases their are.

The final big issue (I’m sure there are other minor ones) is privacy. Many people seem to think that anyone who stores any information on the internet is almost certain to be stalked by some pervert, or be hacked by some malicious group from Russia, or to be ridiculed by the on-line community after they read and distributed personal details. Yeah sure, all those things happen in rare cases, but the reality is the risk has been blown out of all proportion.

Clinical psychologist and university sociologist Sherry Turkle has written a book titled “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” which discusses many of these points. I haven’t read the book so it is difficult to comment on it. I’m not sure, for example, how much of her opinion is based on facts and experiment and how much is based on opinion and anecdotes.

I do know that some real research has indicated trends in the opposite direction to what the book suggests: that people who use Facebook more also interact with real people more, that gamers sometimes broaden their horizons by interacting with other people all around the world who have a wide variety of experience, and that sharing information on the internet more often leads to good outcomes than bad.

I guess, like a lot of social science, there is evidence showing contradictory outcomes. And in the end the debate doesn’t matter anyway because technology, especially computers and the internet, is just too useful no matter what the disadvantages are. Few people will give up their social internet use just because there is an occasional unpleasant incident linked to it, no one is going to give up using a calculator or a GPS because it makes skills from the past redundant, and spending less time in front of a screen (computer, TV, or game) doesn’t seem to be much of a trend no matter what the naysayers are telling us.

It’s almost impossible to imagine life without these technologies now that we have them. I believe my horizons have broadened hugely since I started using the internet. I now know a lot more about a much wider range of topics than would have been practical without it. I find it hard to imagine how I could do much without my iPhone – it’s an ever-present source of information and communications. And I can do mental arithmetic quite well, I can remember many numbers, and I am quite good at reading maps, but I feel little need to utilise these skills because I just don’t need to.

We stopped riding horses everywhere when we got cars. Cars introduced many hazards, reduced the level of equestrian skills greatly, and had many other bad effects, but would we really want to go back to horses except as a recreational choice? Obviously not. The same argument applies to modern technology and if some people can’t cope with that then they should just get out of the way, saddle up their horses, and ride off into the sunset!

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  1. March 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm

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