July 22, 2013

Two Eternal Tensions

It occurred to me while reading Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants that there are two constant (related) tensions that play a big role in civilization (by this I do not mean that these are the only forces, I simply am focusing on two of them). One is the tension between the desire for the benefits of government and the desire to be as free as possible. The other is the tension between the desire for the benefits of technology and the desire to have as much control over our lives as possible, to feel that it is we that use technology and not the other way around.

The relationships between these notions are complicated. Government is a type of technology, and ideally enhances freedom in that it enables a civilization in which we have a much wider range of choices, giving us a net gain of freedom. One of Kelly's main points is that this the typical effect of technology. So far, so good.

But reality is more complicated, because government and technology in general both tend to overreach. Government, unchecked, will seek to empower itself at the cost of civil liberties. Technology, unchecked, will seek to empower itself at the cost of our well-being and our environment. However, both are worth the cost, so instead of asking how to do away with government or technology, we must ask how to steer it.

To check government (inevitably world government) will always be a struggle. Desired methods will often go beyond what is legal (civil disobedience) but, at least for the more democratic governments, will rarely approach anything resembling revolt. To check technology, we must simultaneously embrace it and be vigilant against its harms. Kelly makes an argument that the Precautionary Principle, whereby a technology or policy must be proven to do no harm before it can be used, is a terrible notion to apply. Global warming denialists like to latch on to criticism of the Precautionary Principle, but let us not be dissuaded from examining it critically by them. One can't help but assent to the observation that the Precautionary Principle is self-contradictory, since in order to apply it, we would first have to prove that it can do no harm. And this is really Kelly's point, the harm it does is precisely in preventing technological progress. He recommends a program of careful adoption and vigilant oversight.

But to me the parallel is more clear in my day-to-day life, at least on the technological side. I am very into technology but I try to be careful that the technology I use helps me rather than harms me. For example, I've found Twitter to be mostly distracting, something that is too tempting to check every ten minutes, and mostly full of content I don't actually get that much out of. I've tried it a couple times, but I doubt I'll go back for quite awhile. I'm on the fence about RSS readers for the same reason. Of course I'm not always successful, I've gotten sucked into computer games or, worse, television shows, many of which provide mindless entertainment.

So I guess my point is that we benefit greatly from government, even as we (well, some of us) often find it necessary to check its overreach, in the same way that we benefit greatly from technology, even as we struggle to live our lives independent of its grasp.

I have felt the urge to publish various thoughts on matters sparked by What Technology Wants and have chosen not to restrain myself to the book review format, where I put them all in one post. This will probably be how I share my thoughts while reading from now on.

No comments:

Post a Comment