I know of only one constant with technology, and it was coined by Neil Postman nearly 30 years ago: “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing,” Postman writes, and the only way to keep new technologies in check is to not become “incapable of imagining what they will undo.”
Truth be told I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I have for most of my tech career. But I remain optimistic about its future—this is the only reasonable way I‘ve found to coexist with it. Technology is a ten thousand-ton train that will never stop, and not one of us has the power to slow its course.
However, every one of us is empowered to correct technology’s unrelenting course. The only way I’ve found to do this is to become its companion rather than servant, and then educate future generations to guide its course toward the greater good. This especially top of mind for me having raised 5 digital-native sons for 20+ years.
Back to Postman’s quote. It comes from his book, Technopoly, and here is the expanded text:
“Most people believe that technology is a staunch friend. There are two reasons for this. First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful.
“But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend…. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that. Nothing could be more obvious, of course, especially to those who have given more than two minutes of thought to the matter. Nonetheless, we are surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.”
I first read Neil’s words in the 2000s and they’ve stuck with me ever since. I’ve found that cognizance and respect of technology’s power—the good and the bad, for better or for worse—enable us to assess our dependency on it.
Years ago Frank Chimero wrote something similar to Postman’s argument. Chimero’s post (permalink) is no longer available but here's the text I archived:
“One of the problems with the prevalence of solutions is it overvalues invention and undervalues behavior. We look for a gizmo, when changing how we act can have the desired effect. It seems like we’ve been hoodwinked into a trap of technological dependency.
“But, technology is only as good or bad as what we use it to do, and I don’t think anyone who works in tech gets into the field with malice as their intent. In fact, usually the opposite, which is why I like this business. Hell, I’m one of the the folks in technology, so none of this criticism excludes me—I only suggest we stop looking at technology as the primary way to fix problems, and stop turning a blind eye to its negative consequences and to the new problems it produces.”
I’ve found it helpful to remember that everything we do as technologists, no matter how noble it may seem, is subject to the argument that our work results in unforeseen negative consequences and new problems. I have seen this play out raising 5 sons with abundant technology in our home, deploying new advancements in the most remote parts of Africa, leveraging tech during a global pandemic, and so much more.
The remarkable opportunity at our fingertips, from first key stroke to final lid closing at the end of the day, is the unrelenting pursuit of harnessing technology for the greater good.