The Wrecknology Boom

Or, how not to waste your life on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Apps, gadgets, bots. Soon your self-driving car will tell your smart fridge that you’re out of lab-synthesized-meal-substitute and a delivery drone will drop it off without you even having to waste your precious time asking at your doorstep. And you? Well, you’ll be freer than ever. But the question is: to do what? To spend your brief time on Planet Earth picking fights or leaving affirmations on the internet about things that don’t matter with people you’ve never met to bury your wounds deep enough to pretend your life feels like it’s fully being lived…even though in your secret hidden soul you know it’s not? Because the inconvenient truth is that’s what most of us are doing lately.

We are in the midst of what I will call a Wrecknology Boom. What do I mean by the awkwardly annoying portmanteau “Wrecknology”? Things masquerading as technologies — but that do not do what true technologies do. Instead of improving our quality of life, they reduce and shrink it. Thus, they wreck our human potential, instead of bringing us closer to realizing it. In this essay, I want to explore that idea, and derive a simple principle from it.

To explain, let’s take the example of a hypothetical website called Gloobio, where people can vote links and comments up and down. Is it technology, in the true sense — or Wrecknology? To understand, we’d have to answer the simple, but subtle, question of it’s effects. To what extent does it improve people’s lives? Because it is it is a tyranny of the majority, where the loudest and angriest rule, Gloobio quickly devolves to the lowest quality of interaction. It becomes a staging ground for abuse on people who are not like the majority, a haven for the furious to vent their rage, and a fortress of the destructive to crush their self-defined enemies and adversaries, those who may anger and displease them. Gloobio becomes something like a black hole of human potential: not just destroying the potential of its users, but also those its users abuse and attack and vilify.

You might say: doesn’t it improve the speed and quality of information? There, too, it fails: Gloobio misidentified the perpetrators in a recent terrorist attack, precisely because it is prone to believing what it wants over what is real. Perhaps, then, you might say: I’m shunned in real life, and Gloobio allows me to hang out with people just like me. Perhaps that’s true. But the benefits to you do not make up for Gloobio’s multitude of sins, nor is Gloobio the only place to hang out with people just like you, who are also shunned, online.

In nearly every sense, people regularly visiting places like Gloobio are wasting their lives. A 14 year old hanging out there should be reading a book or five, making friends, learing a sport, discovering how to make sense of the world. A 24 year old should be on a date, getting another degree, working on their careers. A 34 year old should be enjoying time with their kids, trying to have them, developing themselves. There is no sense in which time spent at Gloobio cannot be better used elsewhere. Thus, Gloobio is Wrecknology. And in Gloobio’s example, we see the toxic effects of such things-masquerading-as-tech.

The Wrecknology Boom is a boom in low technologies. High technology is stuff that makes us better in real human terms. They are tools that free us to live up to our potential. Low technology is stuff that doesn’t improve the quality of our lives to any significant degree; indeed, it may often worsen them. Low technologies stunt and diminish us from reaching our potential. Cures for cancer, space flight, antibiotics, the world wide web itself — all these are high technologes.

But the truth isn’t just that many of today’s hottest startups are low technologies — it is that the megatrend in today, economically, society, and cultural, is to value low tech over high tech. To place gadgets, apps, and bots above and before great discoveries, explorations, and breakthroughs. We celebrate, lionize, and worship trivial barely-often-backwards-steps that give us minor-league convenience at the cost of true progress, not historic, exceptional, world-changing, truly life-transforming giant leaps. Culturally, we elevate the founders of Wrecknology startups as today’s great benefactors to humanity, but the truth is they are probably more like the inventors of the Slurpee — and so we are only letting ourselves down by doing so.

That is what I mean by the Wrecknology Boom. Here is another way to put it. We are systematically overinvesting in low technology — and that is a primary reason why life is not improving in meaningful terms for so many; why, while you might have a awesome mega 3D flat screen app ready TV on which you can watch endless internet!! videos!! for!! free!!, your life expectancy, career opportunities, savings, income, and general sense of well being are going nowhere fast. If social media gives you a million fake friends which you spend all day trying to appease and please, just to feel a little bitterer with jealousy each day, you’re going to be unhappier — which is exactly what research suggest social media does: voila, more Wrecknology. It might make appear to be making us happier — but the truth is that we are something like addicts to its constant fixes of numbness for our own growing unhappiness.

The reverse of a Wrecknology Boom is also true. While we are overinvesting in Wrecknology, we are also underinvesting in high technology. Why? Simply because every dollar that we put into apps, gadgets, and bots that reduce our quality of life is a dollar that we don’t put into great inventions that do. That is a big reason why truly groundbreaking creations, like chemotherapy, space flight, or the vaccine, are so few and far between these days. Yet, without advances like these, the highest quality of life in society cannot rise at all.

What happens to quality of life? It stagnates. To illustrate, consider my favorite examples of Wrecknology at work: apps that call assistants, butlers, and other kinds of servants, like Magic. The simple truth is that if you need a bottle-opener or a shoelace-tier or a wardrobe-organizer, you are a living black hole of human potential. Not only have you not reached your own (by definition, no one can buttle or VIP service you into painting a masterpiece or writing a great book or formulating a great equation, genius)— but now you’re stopping others from reaching theirs, too. And no, just because you are “paying” them for the privilege of wasting their lives serving you does not mean you are benefitting them in any serious or lasting way.

And so on. You can go down the list. How many apps can you think of that don’t truly free people to reach their potential, all things considered, in any meaningful way at all — or better yet, down the line, will actually prevent them from it? While the effects of the Wrecknology Boom might not be as bad in every case as Gloobio, they spread far and wide. Here are two extreme examples, which you will doubt, but I want you to think about nonetheless. Self-driving cars, for example, might seem wondrous and awesome. But if their primary effect is to make you work an extra two hours a day, thereby increasing the fragility of everyone’s job, and amplifying pressure in the labor market, their net effect will be a lot less wondrous than we might suppose. Let’s suppose one day your fridge can call you and tell you’re out of milk. Great, right? Not so fast. Your fridge can also call the grocery store, and tell them. And they can and will charge you more, turning a humdrum shopping trip into something more like information warfare. Perhaps you do not think that this is quite Wrecknology — but you will probably agree that this is not quite technology in the sense that cures for cancer are, either.

Why, then, are we seeing a Wrecknology Boom today? Go ahead and point to evil capitalism, to cronyism, or to consumerism if you like. But I think the reason is subtler. It is because when we talk about “technology”, we use the word in a monolithic way, and so we have come to assume that all technologies are created equal. Any kind of instrument has come to be called a technology, just as valid and worthy as the next. But if we are wise, we will begin to distinguish between technologies high and low, those that benefit us, and those that merely imprison and thwart us. The truth is that a world wide web or a cure for cancer is not the same thing, any meaningful sense, as a time-saving app or an internet forum. Though we may call both “technology”, doing so confuses us, leaves us susceptible to illogic and unreason, and thus leaves us less capable of making good judgments about where, when, and how to invest ourselves.

Let’s consider now a possible objection — I’ll call it the objection of freedom. What about the elevator, you might say. Doesn’t that, by letting people not have to walk up stairs, make them fatter, and less fit? Isn’t it therefore a low technology? And if it is, what’s wrong with low technology — because no one reasonable can object to elevators. Not quite. The elevator frees us to do better things with our time than climb stairs. Those things might include going to the gym, writing great books, or curing great illnesses. So on balance, the elevator frees human potential more than it diminishes it. That is distinctly not true of low technologies. Gloobio and it’s ilk don’t free us to do anything else that is worthier — they just suck up human potential like a black hole sucks up light.

And that is the point.

If it is a life worth living that you wish to earn, you must avoid and reject low technologies, precisely because they will wreck you. In every sense. You must not waste your energy and passion creating them. You must not waste your career managing and monetizing them. Nor must you waste your brief days using them for titillation, outrage, and easy pleasure. Why not? Because low technologies do not benefit us, they will not improve our lives. And because they do not improve our lives, they cannot lead us to happiness, meaning or purpose — whether as their consumers or their producers.

Thus, if we are their producers, ultimately we are only going to throw our hands up in the air, even if we are succesful at creating them, and say: “this is all my life amounted to? A crappy product that wrecked people’s lives? I didn’t do anything that mattered with my days”. If we are their consumers, we are ultimately going to bury our heads in our hands, and say: “why did I waste so much time and energy there? What was I thinking? If only I had spent that time on stuff that mattered instead!”.

True freedom isn’t just “doing whatever you want” — which is the fatal mistake that Wrecknologies lead us to conclude. If that were true, we would call a child burning themselves on a hot stove free. True freedom is the capacity, and then, the ability to make choices that improve your quality of life: to reach, and exceed, your potential. For in that freedom, and only in that freedom, lies grace: a sense that one’s life has mattered. That sense of grace is the greatest gift any life may receive. And yet. Our challenge is not merely receiving it — but giving it.

Umair
London
January 2016