For a number of years now I have heard arguments and debates about technology. Is TV good or bad? Is the Internet good or bad? And for the longest time I had assumed that technology was neutral. It was a tool. And you could use the tool for constructive or for destructive purposes. However, as I wrote on this blog a couple of days ago, the tools we use significantly shape us – often in ways we don’t intend. And that means that the technology is not really neutral.
Technology doesn’t refer to the tools but the techniques
Lance Strate wrote an article in Educational Technology in 2012 where he emphatically states, “If it’s neutral it’s not technology.” Strate’s argument is that a computer in the hands of one who doesn’t know how to use it is not a technological tool but a mere ornament. Or perhaps the person uses it as a paperweight, in which case the computer is now a “different tool” – that of a paperweight – and not the same tool used differently. The word technology itself comes from the word “technique.” In other words, the technique of using a sword is not neutral – it always is meant to cut something, whether that is a person or a sack of rice. So, saying that the tool is neutral and we can use it however we want does not make sense. When we use it a different way, we are reinventing the process and using a different technique – or a different technology – which comes with its own bias of what it’s meant to do.
The Apps we use have biases built into them
A couple of months ago, Popsci published an article about how “Social Media can exploit base human psychology.” Moreover, recently we have been finding out that Facebook has known for a few years how the very architecture of their apps, especially Instagram, is really harmful for teenagers and users, but they have continued to suppress the news in order to not face negative economic consequences. To understand how social media can have biases built into them, consider the architecture of YouTube. YouTube places the metrics of views and likes right below the video. This implicitly states that the value or worth or quality of a video can be judged by how many people have viewed it, or how many people have “liked” it. In essence, the ideology of “majority must be right” is subtly pushed by the very placement of these numbers. The YouTuber, Matt D’Avella, in a recent tweet, spoke about this tendency of YouTube to conform its creators to think in terms of Metrics. In short, each application or technology says something about the person who created it – and about what the person believes.
Does that mean I cannot control my tool? That it will always control me?
Science fiction movies often predict a dystopian future where the computers have entirely taken over and rule over the humans. That is way too far fetched and we know it. And that is perhaps the reason why we keep telling ourselves that technology is in fact neutral. But the reality is that there is an element of truth to these things – although in a far more subtle way. As Strate writes, “We are neither fully in control nor fully out of control; we function in the gray area in-between.” According to him, if we are to regain some control it has to begin with the realization that we are not fully in control, and then it has to involve a critical and reflective approach to technology. In short, we need to think deeply and carefully about each new technology we use.
We need to think about the benefits it brings us, the unintended consequences that might tag along, the ways in would change our relationship to our devices (for example, would it make me check my phone more often), and a host of other questions. And at the end of the day, we must understand that we cannot predict all these consequences. In short, we must always remember that “If it’s neutral, it’s not technology!”