“Reflections” is a new category of posts aimed to engage discussion about broader issues in technology and ethics. This first “Reflections” post on Techno-optimism and Techno-pessimism asks you to consider, “What are your general views towards technology, and how did you arrive at those views?”
Many of us have opinions about technology that can be classified along the spectrum of being a “techno-optimist” or a “techno-pessimist” — categorizations that reflect our general attitude about our technological past, present, and future.
When you think about the way in which technology has impacted our world—from the environment, to our medical achievements, to human relationships — are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about its influence?
Are you a techno-optimist? Do you think technology has consistently improved our lives for the better, and that it will continue to do so into the future? When you consider problems in society, or even problems with current technology, do you think that the solution to those problems is more technology?
Or would you characterize yourself as a techno-pessimist? Are you generally concerned with the impact that modern technology has had on humanity, believing that it has created just as many problems as solutions? Do you think that seeking out more technology is likely to bring about new problems, because technology inevitably introduces unforeseen consequences and dangers? Do you think that since technology creates so many of its own problems, the answer to human progress often lies in a reduction of technological dependence, rather than an expansion of it?
You may find that you don’t fall solidly into one camp or the other; and extremes of these two camps, of course, both hold with them their risks. Blind technological-optimism and faith in technological fixes for problems leads one to always focus on looking for a technological fix, thereby overlooking non-technological interventions. Alternatively, complete resistance to technology is untenable, and may cause us to overlook potential technologies that could be helpful.
But it’s important to remember that neither of these characterizations has to be relegated to an extreme. A techno-optimist is not necessarily a Singularity-obsessed Cyborg-wannabe, blindly advocating for technological expansion; and a techno-pessimist is not necessarily a techno-phobe who withdraws from society completely to a cabin in the woods (although that’s not to say that these types of people don’t exist, to be sure).
It’s likely you fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes, and have developed that view based on how technology has influenced your own life, and how you have perceived that technology has affected our society. Consider some of the following examples, and reflect on where you fall on the techno-optimist/techno-pessimist spectrum:
- Have social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, alongside communication technologies like cell phones, texting, and so on, increased our capacity to communicate, or diminished it? Have we forged better relationships as a result of these technologies, or has the quality of our relationships deteriorated? Do such technologies stimulate or dull our intellects? Do they tend to enhance our emotional depth, or inhibit deep emotional responses? Do they lead us to be more or less active, physically and socially? Do they allow us to become more aware of the world around us, or less?
- Is the solution to the climate crisis to be found in the hopes of green technologies, or to be found by making changes to human behavior? Should we invest in technology to solve our climate problems, or should we invest in reducing our dependence on energy through social and behavioral changes, such as reducing our habits of consumption? Even if we can do both, does focusing on future hopes for new ‘clean’ and ‘green’ technologies reduce our motivation to make necessary lifestyle changes now? Or are such technologies the only real solution we can expect for our environmental problems?
- Have advancements in medicine been unequivocally positive? What has been the impact of technologies like x-rays, antibiotics, antidepressants, and end-of-life care (like respirators) had on the whole of human experience? To what extent have they improved our quality of life, and to what extent have they affected it negatively?
- Can social and environmental problems, ones that are arguably “non-technical” in nature, have “technological” solutions? For example, given the world’s global food shortage, should we encourage the proliferation of agricultural biotechnology, including genetically engineering crops, with the aim to increasing food yield? Or should we look to individuals and social movements to make changes in human behavior, such as putting emphasis on limiting food waste, distributing food supply more evenly, and placing value on a certain degree of self-sacrifice?
Leave your comment below, assessing where you fall on the spectrum, and why:
Are you a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist? What experiences or ideas have caused you to develop this view?
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