Technology Is Not Evil

Thomas Kvistholt (Unsplash)

On February 20th, 2009, TechCrunch published a factually incorrect article with the headline: “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?” It was utter nonsense and Last.fm wrote a delightfully pithy response entitled: Techcrunch are full of shit, but the best thing that came out of that fiasco was an opinion piece written by journalist Ian Betteridge and containing this quote:

One thing though: This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

Soon after, someone coined the term Betteridge’s Law of Headlines positing that any headline posing a yes or no question can probably be answered concisely with the answer “no”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek adage that predates 2009, but I’ve found that it holds true more often than not.

This week, the New York Times published an op-ed by David Brooks, with the headline: How Evil Is Tech? Paraphrasing that title to “Is Technology Evil?” I find that Betteridge’s Law applies. The answer is no. Technology is not evil.

Unlike the TechCrunch article, this is an opinion piece and David Brooks hasn’t compromised his journalistic integrity by writing it, nor did he necessarily choose the headline. The article’s focus is on the negative effects of social media, and on young people in particular. Brooks writes about the rising tide of disillusionment that politicians and the public feel toward social media giants, and he writes about how those same giants have displayed a wanton disregard for the wellbeing of their own users.

I don’t disagree with any of that.

There’s a place in the world for social media and great good does come of it, but there is also a need to acknowledge that many of the outcomes are negative. David Brooks isn’t the first person to write about this, nor will he be the last, and that’s a good thing.

No, I don’t disagree with the content of Brooks’ op-ed at all. My quarrel is with the headline that spuriously equates social media with technology.

Brooks addresses social media almost exclusively in his op-ed, but the headline asks us if technology is evil. Technology is a superset that includes social media in the same way that science is a superset that includes ballistics. I would be equally exasperated if someone wrote an article about the senseless death resulting from breakthroughs in ballistics and then implied that science was evil without ever even broadly discussing it.

Sebastien Gabriel (Unsplash)

We no longer have the luxury of imprecise language — that is, if we ever did. A large proportion of the population is afraid of technology and will instinctively answer yes to the question posed by that headline. The article’s headline will reinforce the bias held by many of its readers, and strengthen their resolve. This is simply human nature and reflects how we all behave when presented with evidence that supports our own viewpoints; We tend to seek reaffirmation of our own beliefs and hide from challenges to our biases.

The tide against science and technology is swelling. The United States government has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested or opposed to reliance on science in the policymaking process. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, more than half of Americans either don’t believe that climate change is caused by humans or don’t believe that it’s happening at all. Snowballs are being presented in the Senate as incontrovertible proof against science. Bills are being proposed that if enacted would further cripple scientific education in schools. And people fear technology, too. Perhaps more than they fear anything else.

Fear of technology is understandable. There’s a lot to consider: armed drones, vast data collection in both the private and public sectors, and heavy investment into artificial intelligence among many others. However, while fear of the application of technologies is often warranted, the fear of technology itself is actively counterproductive to the wellbeing of our society.

Science and technology remain our best tools for educating ourselves and others and for democratizing power. The spread of information over the internet protects us from abuses of power by those with the resources to do so. Breakthroughs in medicine keep us alive and healthy for longer than ever. In general, technology is one of our last and greatest tools for decentralization and independence. Through technology, we are given the ability to reduce our own ignorance about the world around us and about the people who live in it.

If we can increasingly be made to fear technology and to fear science, then we can be more easily manipulated. If we’re going to fear something then we should fear corruption or political over-reach. Fear nepotism and cronyism. Fear technology put to terrible uses. Fear and fight against fascism and hatred. But don’t decry technology or science itself.

In truth, we all need to be stewards and caregivers of both science and technology. We need to ensure that they are properly leveraged in policy-making and education, and so we need to commit ourselves to understanding them. Headlines like “How Evil Is Tech?” reinforce people’s fear and mistrust of technology. And so, a better headline, and one that I wouldn’t disagree with is: “Social Media Giants: Be Better Stewards”.

Not just them. Us too.