Frenemy of Technology

We’ve all done it.

Shaken our fist at our computers when they crash and obliterate a document in which we’d invested an hour without saving. Or, gnashed our teeth when we can’t get a signal on our smart phone to look up the answer to the yogurt shop’s trivia question of the day. And who among us hasn’t cursed the airline industry as we shell out increasing amounts of money for quick trips across the country?

Yes, technology sucks.

It makes our lives better and yet so much more frustrating at the same time. Each new advance in convenience and comfort brings with it new challenges and complications. This is why I am an official frenemy of technology. I cannot eschew the tangible benefits that sophisticated computing power, omnipresent digital access, and high speed transportation has given the human race, but neither can I ignore the organic connections, experiences, and health we lose along the way to the Future.

I’m not one of those people who bemoans the fact that we don’t write checks, snail mail correspondence and play outdoors like we used to. What’s the point of human intelligence and ingenuity if we don’t use it to advance? To grow? To better ourselves and ease the suffering of the human condition (like writing checks?) Generally, we are doing all of that, but the problem is that we aren’t doing so equitably and shrewdly. Technology should improve everyone’s lives across the board, not just those who can afford it. Advancement shouldn’t come at the cost of the health of poorer communities, our own mental health, or the health of our one and only planet. And yet, it does.

Consider smart phones. These amazing little devices allow people to stay connected in a myriad of ways to family, friends, and friendly strangers halfway around the world, while often ignoring those we are physically with. We can navigate with them, take photos and publish them instantly, reserve hotels, buy food and trinkets, and video chat with loved ones . . . all on the go.

BUT . . . the welfare of workers who build these devices to keep up with insatiable global demand remains murky. Yes, they have jobs, but at what cost to their health and welfare?  

BUT . . . our smart phones now contain the power of three or four devices in one. They do the work of navigational aids, cameras, computers, and telephones. Fewer devices mean less waste and less potentially hazardous manufacturing, right?

BUT . . . through the miracle of planned obsolescence, these smart phones are made to be swapped out every few years to “maximize usability,” so we’re still generating more (environmentally hazardous) waste than we had before smart phones were invented and popularized.

You see what I mean? Technology is a conundrum. An enigma. An impossible Escher image. It’s both good and bad for us as a global community.

Plastic is another mixed-gift technology. Plastic has been in the world in some shape or form for centuries, but World War II ushered in a new era of chemically-harmful yet cheap formulations. These advances have ostensibly given us increased convenience, hygiene, and economic efficiency in the form of lightweight and disposable products. Plus, it’s cheaper (and more profitable) for industry to make new plastic items than to reuse packaging. And now, look at the problems we face with fish and wildlife eating our non-biodegradable trash.

A popular mindset on the problems of technological progress is that we will eventually science ourselves out of the messes we create, and maybe to a degree, we have. Think about the plastic-based cassettes, CDs, VHS movies, DVDs, and all the associated cases we’ve accumulated, used, and then either sold, donated or thrown out. That’s a lot of music and movies sitting in landfills across the world. Today’s digital media creates less physical waste and as long as we use smarter, cleaner energy to fuel the increased consumption of online streaming, it’s a better environmental choice.

Of course, I feel we also lose a sense of organic ownership and appreciation without such items to hold in our hot little hands. Do I really own a copy of that movie, that album, if I can’t physically take it off my shelf in my house and play it on my equipment? Do I still own any of the music I buy through iTunes if I lose access to my account or delete it because of general Apple disgruntlement? Yes, less clutter and waste is better, but it moves us to more proprietary and corporate-controlled ownership. It moves us from the material to the notional. The tangible to the intangible. But maybe that’s a good thing, as I’ve long believed that happiness does not come through items but experiences (once you get beyond the necessities of food, clothing and shelter, that is . . .)

Technology gives us social media, which delivers valid and immediate news and brings us closer together while it also spreads misinformation and furthers social divide. Technology connects our entire home so we can turn off lights, lock doors, control thermostats, and answer the doorbell while away on vacation, while it makes us more vulnerable to security hacks. Technology gives us fast, sleek and increasingly-efficient transportation while it continues to rely on fossil-based fuels and spit out climate-threatening pollution. This is why I call myself a frenemy of technology. I recognize what it does for us, but I also realize what it’s doing to us.

But still, I embrace technology because it enables us to see and appreciate the beauty of our world without pricey, intrusive, or environmentally-taxing travel: the ecosystems deep beneath our oceans; the flora and fauna of vast jungles and rainforests; the enchanting indigenous cultures of societies far removed from our own; and the entire universe above our heads. Thanks to innovation that stretches as far back as 1609 and continues today, we can see stars more than 6 trillion miles away (and as of last week, black holes, too!) Perhaps one day, technology will even take us there.

Which can only be a good thing, as we may just technology ourselves out of our current home world.

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