An average person today is buried under heaps of tech. This isn’t 2000s or early 2010s, when buying a smartphone would be expensive. And I use smartphone as just but one example of the kind of tech I am talking about. We have people having fast and portable computers. Apple wants you to carry around an iPad Pro which has insane computing capabilities. And for what? So that you will have a smooth transition from your YouTube to Twitter apps?
“Techno-Optimism” is a belief system which professes that being new is same as being better. It is the belief that every new technology is better and that every technology will make life “better”. When someone identifies themselves as a “Tech Enthusiast”, they are telling the world that they are enthusiastic about the new tech, and more often that not the tech enthusiasts are more concerned about the “new” rather than the “better”. And in that focus, lies a full-fledged devil.
Whenever I switch on my study light with a voice command, read about everything in the world on a hand-held device curated for me and have an answer to every possible question I can have with a few taps on a keyboard — I wonder how would my generation look to somebody who is born in 2100. Will the Big Tech (Apple, Google and Facebook) appear to them as Big Oil seems to me.
This “time”, which I always tell myself — what an amazing time to live, will it appear as a series of wrong steps to a life which was not inherently “good”. Every day, somebody somewhere in the world thinks about a new idea. A new idea for a startup, a new patent and a design of a new product, but how often do we see a Snapchat or a Facebook become the success that their original thinkers imagined?
The Trope About Degradation Caused by Technology
I’ve heard the trope first hand — “technology has degraded us” from men and women of all generations. There is an ample number of millenials who would agree with me when I say that smartphones have made us dumb. Then why am I even here? Why am I writing about the Data, Tech and the Universe? What am I excited about? What am I trying to make you excited about?
On Jun 3, I spent 2 hours+ oggling at WWDC 2019. I was excited about all the new things that iOS 13 will have and all about the new iPadOS. Apple also unveiled the new Mac Pro, a workstation with power which I will never need. But I loved every announcement they made because — those were new developments in tech.
Not very long ago, I bought my first smart bulb. I liked it so much, that I changed all the lights in my home to smart bulbs and smart batons. There were places where WiFi couldn’t reach, so I bouhght more powerful router. To control all the lights, I bought a Google Home. So, now, I come home from work and tell the Assitant “I am home”, and it switches on the lights in my living room, turns them to green and plays my selected playlist on my Google Chromecast TV.
When I first completed this mini-IoT network, I was uber-excited. I told everyone who would let me talk, about how nice it all feels. Till somebody asked me, “How does it increase my productivity?” I answered her, but she was less than satisfied with my answer. She was one of those who are “meh.” when it comes tech. But her question was genuine. How indeed do all these things make my life “better”?
From time immemorial, humans have kept an edge over other species because of our love for technology. Fire, wheel, agriculture, building houses, sharp weapons, urban planning — these were all technologies. The smartphone and the fire, changed the human civilization is pretty much the same way. The quantum leap that we did, after the first iPhone is phenomenol. But has the technology ever since, did something “good” for us? My answer is a definitive “yes”.
The Shortcomings of Tech are Shortcomings of Humanity
The Internet is a force for good. Yes, it has shortcomings, but those shortcomings are not that of the internet, but of men and women who use it. Internet is often blamed for everything bad in the world. But it’s how badly or well we use the Internet, determines the type of effect it has in our lives.
Internet has democratized information. But, an average Joe doesn’t “want” to know stuff. He wants to bully. He wants to look at porn. That’s not the fault of the Internet. In it’s true completion of the promise, Internet has given each and everyone of us more power than our forefathers had. But it is our shortcoming that we would rather post Hate Speech on Facebook, rather than watch videos on DIY projects (also available in plenty on Facebook).
What Tech has done is amplify our capabilities. The good ones do better things, and the bad ones do worse things.
The Good Things that have Come out of Democratization of Tech outweigh the Bad
Yes, there are bad things that are unique to our generation and owe their manifestations to technology. But the good things, even one good thing, outweigh the bad. Cryptocurrency often something that conservatives bash for being “too unstable to use” or “unregulated”. But if it can help even one family in rural India to send/receive money without a bank account, all arguments it have failed.
Facebook is blamed for everything bad about today. And I mean everything. Yes, Facebook has gone too far with microtargetting. They know too much about us. But, how many times we see an artist putting up his work on a Facebook Page? How often do we see someone who is honing his skill, share preliminary work on Facebook? If we have even one artist that becoming more confident about his art, because of all the appreciation and shares he gets on Facebook, we have Facebook as a force for good. Yes, it has problems, but all of them are secondary. And they can be solved.
Does having a connected array of things in house make it more vulnerable to exploits? Of course it does. Does it make life any better? Yes, if you know how to use them. Are the good things that come out of it, worth the risk? Definitely.
Unreasonable Fear of Conservatives
Newness isn’t always the best. But they way forward is well… forward. We have to build Intelligent machines because only then we can have an Industrial Revolution 2.0. The unreasonable fear that conservatives have for new tech, say AI, is ignoble, originating from the a biased view that if you cannot understand something fully it will be dangerous. Some have gone as far as comparing AI to nuclear weapons.
Disruptions caused by tech makes them uncomforatable because it threatens the status quo which they find beneficial for them.
I agree with that analogy with some qualification. Nuclear Technology was the way forward, and while we have understood that there are destructive uses (note that, people at Los Alamos making nuclear bombs, knew for certain that the nuclear bombs will be destructive and they nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki with complete knowledge of the damage it will co. The only time, the nuclear weapon was used, was not by accident!) Artificial Intelligence and the overall mission of making things around us “intelligent” is the way forward.
Machine Learning has changed the way we do science (link for that Nautilus article on the way we do science in machine learning). It has found new ways to detect diseases. I do not understand the unreasonable fear or the discouragement that is received for algorithmic decisions. Here’s something that I’d like to make to clear — everybody working in the field of ML and AI is aware of the biases that creep into their coding.
There is no need to look at the future of technology with an optimistic glass. We need to fix things, but at the same time, the future towards we are moving is full of rewarding experience. It is a great time to be alive. Nobody advocates throwing caution in the wind, but the unreasonable fear against the AI, ML, IoT and cryptocurrency is as indefensible as the fear against the telegraph, automobile and novels. Some people would like the status quo to remain. Disruptions caused by tech makes them uncomforatable because it threatens the status quo which they find beneficial for them.
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