I Hate Technology

Technology is responsible for many of our societal ills. I think I hate it.

I have never made this admission to others or to myself. My whole life has been oriented around growth, innovation, and progress. I am an early adopter. I work in the technology industry and have consistently worked at companies on the leading edge of what is possible. I have convinced myself I love it, but I am not sure I do any more.

Consider several significant developments of our time:

  • Tesla
  • Climate
  • Trump

These are all fundamentally linked to science and technology, and our social responses to their impacts.

Tesla

Tesla has made me think about progress in an optimistic way again.

I have just bought and received a Tesla Model 3. It’s a car. It is not better than my 12 year old Toyota Prius in any way that affects my life. Sure, it looks good, goes really (really) fast, is safe, and my purchase lets my daughter have her own car as she heads towards college. It also gets three times the mileage of the Prius, which gets two times the mileage of the average car. It is a radically different and better car, but it’s still just a car.

Yet at the end of 2017 there were only 750,000 EVs on the road in the US, while there were 1.2 million EVs in China. 200,000 EVs were sold in the US in 2017, only a tiny fraction, about 1% of the 17 million. On the bright side, more than 150,000 sold in the US in the first half of 2018, and Tesla, the biggest manufacturer, has dramatically increased production.

In 1998, James Hansen explained that climate change was happening and what caused it. Why is it, that 30 years later only 1% of our vehicles are EVs?

Climate

A few year later, I became involved and aware of our energy and climate issues. The science seemed solid and clear to me. Since then, technology and innovation have responded to the clear need by understanding and building new and (seemingly) better ways to do the things we want and need as a society. It was only a few years ago that adoption of these technologies started taking off, and they still face headwinds.

Climate change is a major problem, brought on by our ignorance of the impact of technology (burning stuff like coal and oil) but it’s addressable and solvable. It’ll just take a while.

Trump

Trump, and the other authoritarian regimes that have risen as a natural and fearful response to changes brought on by technology. These changes have resulted in an imbalance that has created winners and losers. Losers is a harsh and judgemental term — it the workers and families who enabled the technologies, working in coal mines, steel factories, and building cars that propelled the US and the world forward. They are now the victims.

Trump is a social response to technology advances. They have destroyed lives, livelihoods, communities, regions, and destabilized the whole world.

Causes

Coal (and the Watt Steam Engine) enabled the industrial revolution in the late 1800s. Coal has come, thrived, and is now going. The people whose lives depended on coal have been abandoned, decade over decade as the technology for extracting and transporting coal has replaced the need for human labor.

Agriculture, manufacturing, and many other major industries have all been affected similarly — technology has displaced the need for people.

In the the early 20th century, men would line up for their shift in the mines with picks and shovels, descend into the mine, and work hard. Today, coal mining is completely different, highly automated, and using sophisticated equipment and new techniques.

In the 1920s, US coal mining employed 17 times as many as today. Yet production had nearly doubled. Technology has improved productivity by 30 times. Manufacturing and agriculture have had similar trends towards automation.

Technology can be terribly disruptive

Job losses in coal and other industries have resulted in dramatic shifts in what is valued, and where jobs are located. Whole regions of the country that used to thrive on coal, farming, and manufacturing have been gutted and abandoned. Are these are the red states?

Just as the shift from agrarian to industrial created large social discord and shifts in power during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shift from industrial to technical jobs is having the same impact in the 21st century.

Ironically, those huge increases in production of coal and other energy sources caused climate change. An unintended consequence of energy production and use, manufacturing, and population growth, climate change is now described as the single biggest threat to society the world will deal with in this century.

So far, the 21st century has sucked for the USA. Disruption of social norms, wars, and loss of national stature are hard pills to swallow. A disenfranchised group of Americans see their lives slipping away; no one blames technological progress — it’s the fault of the minorities, the immigrants, the other countries, and now the fault of the blue states. Technological change is the root cause that results in authoritarian politics and Trumpism.

In disruption there is opportunity.

It is very likely that technological advances will help rescue us from the most horrible outcomes of climate change. Floods, fires, drought, and excessive heat will be terrible, and as larger populations become threatened, wars will ensue. But when faced with existential threats, humanity can rise to the occasion with remarkable speed.

Fighting these problems will require huge efforts, and that means: jobs. Indeed, jobs in solar power are growing quickly. We need to rebuild much of our transportation, energy production, and real estate just to stop making things worse. We also need to find solutions to mitigate, and even undo the harm that burning carbon has created.

Disruption from technology creates opportunity. Companies like Tesla and a number of others have seen the opportunity and need for new innovations. Tesla has built a vehicle that results in vastly fewer carbon emissions, and eventually none as solar and wind power displace carbon-based fuels.

Technological changes caused these problems, and will likely solve them. Once again, there will be winners and losers. Car companies that don’t move to EVs will fail. Oil companies that don’t embrace new means of energy production will fail. Like coal, these failures will take a long time. But the employment picture will be similar — those Teslas are not just electric, they are built by highly automated processes needing fewer people.

The question I have is: who will make these changes? America? Europe? Russia? My bet is on China today, but it’s not too late for the US.

Do I hate technology?

Perhaps I should hate technology. It causes all sorts of bad things including social and political disruption. Why can’t we just stick with what worked so well in the past? Why can’t we just make America great again?

Unfortunately, technology is just another word for human creativity, ingenuity, and progress. You can fight it, but everyone that ever has fought progress (or failed to embrace it) has found themselves on the losing side.

America has the ability to embrace the new technologies that will solve our current woes. Our country can become great again if we look forward bravely, knowing that the problems we solve with technology today will not be without their drawbacks.

We can fear and hate technology. Or we can embrace it.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison

30 Years of Developing Software, 20 Years of Being a Parent, 10 Years of Being Old. (Effective: 2020)