Humans have an ingenious ability to invent tools and amusements. We call them technologies. They are such a part of our identity that we associate human “progress” with the “advanced” technology of the time. We are, some have said, like fish who swim in an ocean increasingly of their own making, an ocean of technology. Both the global spread of COVID-19 and our efforts to combat it illustrate this point.
We understood long ago that society is changed by the technologies we use and not always in ways we like or think are good for us. Today, many wonder whether technology is enriching or impoverishing our lives.
Computers and related technologies applied to communications, the use of information and entertainment are the focus of this concern today — and appropriately so. Americans try to be honest, fair, generous and hopeful. Those behaviors and their underlying value are weakened by our misuses of digital technologies.
Vivid images of endless variety and content available on our phones and computers abstract our perception of reality in powerfully convincing ways. Our use of social media facilitates gatherings and exchanges often void of the accountability, civility and mutual respect that are present in real human communities. Access to 24/7 cable or satellite news leaves us thirsty for knowledge while we drown in information. Communication by tweet oversimplifies complex issues. Our choice of news feeds and “infotainment” personalities provides us with the version of facts and truth we prefer.
To behave honestly, we must respect facts and the truth that can be found with them. Truth is essential for trust, and communities can’t exist without trust. By belonging to a community we learn fairness, generosity and hopefulness.
Politics is about how we make the rules necessary for us to live together and act collectively. Our misuse of technologies, starting with television, has played a big role in turning politics into a winner-takes-all game instead of the serious and important work of understanding issues, building consensus and forging compromise around solutions.
Information technologies have profoundly influenced our economics. We have used them to make our financial sector too large, influential and short-term oriented. Modern monopolies are also products of applying digital tools to business. These commercial giants exert significant influence over our consumption patterns and behaviors reinforcing materialism and over-consumption. They manage employee pay, benefits, environmental and other costs to be efficient and competitive on a grand scale. Often, they privatize profits and socialize costs, particularly long-term costs without social conscience. Our technology-influenced economic system has led to an explosion of choice that contributes to our hyper-individualism, further atomizing society and leaving us overwhelmed.
Smartphones and the internet put a library, movie theater, sports arena, radio and television studios and more in our purses and pockets. Ease of distraction, short attention spans and a view of the world as if one were seeing it by looking through a straw are some of the undesirable effects. They connect the world and give everyone a voice. A lack of filter or fact-check tarnishes that connectivity. Our behaviors with these technologies make education more difficult.
Our computer and related technologies are now so pervasive and influential that they have personalized the awareness of a need for change. We must act to keep our use of technologies and the impact they have on society in view — and, when needed, in check.
Some have suggested a Food and Drug Administration equivalent to regulate technology. But creative, inventive genius that produces technology has done much that is extraordinarily beneficial and it’s difficult to predict when our use or misuse turns the effects of a technology negative. Others argue that the scientists and engineers who produce technology have an obligation to assess the societal impact of their inventions and act more responsibly. This, too, would require a significant improvement in human foresight and underestimates the incentives that keep the technology-development engine running.
The best approach is for citizens to be highly conscious and well-informed about the impacts of their technology choices when deciding how they live and what they buy. It is a huge behavioral change. For example, technology assisted over-consumption and excessive materialism in America are truths, “inconvenient” ones such as climate change. Our universities can lead by doing more research and teaching more courses on the relationship between technology and society. They can provide community colleges and high schools with their work, encourage routine public education and discourse on how technology and our use of it are changing values, politics, economics and education in our country. Making informed technology choices must become part of our roles and responsibilities as American citizens.
We should break up our communications/information/entertainment monopolies now, reducing their concentrated influence. We must also reduce the size of other modern monopolies that have used information technology to achieve their market dominance. These companies have more influence over the lives and behaviors of more people than any profit-making institution should have in America.
Technology long ago enabled us to satisfy our basic needs and significantly reduce the impact of nature’s uncertainty. We have recently focused it on information-based systems of economic efficiency and competition, on entertainment and diversion. The techno-optimists urge us on, arguing that technological change and the impact it has on our society is a non-biological aspect of human evolution to which we must just adapt.
I believe we have a choice. We do not have to allow the tools and amusements we create to weaken our hold on truth, trust and the human kindness that grows in community. Saving the Idea that is America and much more is at stake.
John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.