Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by technology. Cars, lego, games, ... basically what most kids like. I went on to study mechanical engineering and ever since graduating 17 years ago, I've worked on technology every single working day of my life.
Millions, if not billions, of others have followed a similar course. It looks as if the whole world is constantly racing to stay ahead in terms of technology. And this is hardly a new thing: for centuries, millennia actually, civilizations have pushed on to develop more efficient machines, generate more energy, create more advanced weapons and so on. But why?
If you take the train these days, or even when you're out with friends, most people around you are sitting idle, staring at a screen. If you forget for a second what's on the screen, it's a really weird sight, to see a bunch of social creatures next to each other, ignoring each other only to engage in a far less valuable form of interaction (in my opinion) via their phones.
Even as I'm writing this, I am physically sitting still, staring at a screen, occasionally moving my fingers on the keyboard. So I'm no exception. I'm 100% sure that if you would have presented this lifestyle to the average caveman and cavewoman, they would have been baffled: "seriously? In 10.000 years we'll all live in our own small house instead of roaming around freely? And we'll have to wake up and sit in a "vehicle" for 2 hours a day, only to sit on a "chair" to look at some square object that emits light?".
In exactly the same way, we would probably also shiver seeing what is 10.000 years ahead of us: a matrix-life, entirely digital, where our physical bodies lay motionless while we are linked to a computer? Artificial life on Mars, where we die if we step out without our special suit?
And yet very often technological progress and societal progress are seen as the same thing: the faster computers get, the better our medication, the better our lives will become -- "life now is better than 10.000 years ago". In this article, I simply want to put down some thoughts on technology. I'm not a very literate person, so I can't know for sure, but I would guess none of these thoughts are unique. So then perhaps the main goal here is for me to try and formulate my own thoughts on this, and perhaps get some interesting feedback or pushback so that I maintain (or regain) a flexible perspective on technology.
One aspect of technology is that the impact is the greatest for those who witness the change. I don't remember waking up one day being impressed with the wheel, hot air balloons or aspirin. Sure, I can marvel at them, but they are a given. Today would be the same as yesterday, tomorrow would be the same as today.
But when the first cell phones came out, my world did change. You could suddenly reach someone when they were not at home, not at work. And you could also be reached yourself. And, most importantly, you could play a game of 'snake' on your Nokia 3310! Internet? Same story: rocked our world, but the most normal thing for a 15 year old these days.
The wow effect of technology doesn't last -- it fades quickly, and technology mostly impresses the people who witness its advent. Beyond that, it's considered a given, the new normal. But it's not just about the wow effect. It's about the actual, measurable improvements in the quality of your life. The cell phone presented real benefits in a time when fixed lines were the norm. You could really translate it into more freedom. At least temporarily, as over time we would learn that we gave up the luxury of not being reachable, gave up privacy, and so on.
As we'll see later on, technology solves existing known problems and creates future unknown problems. As we don't know the later up front, we're happy to welcome new technologies. But for those born into the age of smart phones, it's the norm and having one doesn't improve your life. Not having one, though, sets you back. So it becomes the new normal. The real improvements in quality of life do not extend beyond the generation that witnesses the change.
In a very weird way, even finding a cure to cancer may not yield a lasting improvement in quality of life (don't get me wrong - I've also lost relatives to cancer and would do anything I can to cure a loved one). It'll become a given and we'll shift attention to another disease or societal problem.
What does last beyond those who witness the change, though, is the amount of resources we need to sustain the new technology. A person living today probably uses a hundred times more resources or energy compared to someone in the stone age.
Conclusion: objectively, the effects of technology on the quality of life are lasting. But subjectively, as they become the new norm, the effects are mostly temporary, while the effects on required resources seem to last.
Against the above, you can argue that lives are permanently improved through certain technologies, especially regarding the medical domain. Antibiotics have saved many lives, and I wouldn't want to give that technology back (to, uhm, the universe or who or whatever is behind all this, if at all).
But perhaps consider the following: do you ever wake up crying that you won't live to be 200 years, even though it may be like that in the future? Or do you praise yourself lucky every morning that your life expectancy is 80 years instead of 40, as it was perhaps just centuries ago? Likely you don't. But you do feel grateful if you exceed the current life expectancy -- because you've been given more than the average person.
Why? Happiness, or quality of life, seems to be determined by the comparison of your life to that of the people around you, what you see on television, etc., and most importantly, by the comparison to other people who live now, not 1000 years ago nor in the future.
In that sense, getting to technology first gives you a real advantage in society, because in direct comparison to your peers, you'll be ahead. Possibly, this is linked to our very primitive instinct to increase our chances of survival which, in modern times, translates into having the best tools (just like a better bow & arrow in the past also increased your chances of finding food to survive -- so this is not new).
Perhaps global technological advancement is partially driven by each individual simply trying to increase their own chances of survival. All those incremental changes put together perhaps drive the overall advancement of technology.
Conclusion: getting technology first, or more of it, can get you ahead and can improve your quality of life relative to your peers. With everyone pursuing this at the individual level, the overall level of technology is pushed forward.
Standing still means falling behind
This push for technology has another consequence. If you don't innovate as fast as your competitor, you fall behind. Which is a pity, because I believe one of the most fundamental aspects of humans (and perhaps animals) is their extreme flexibility: we will adapt to whatever circumstances we are presented with and will, on average, find similar levels of happiness compared to 10.000 years ago or in the future.
In that sense, you could argue that if we all stop advancing technology, we can all maintain our happiness levels and quality of life. Imagine that 70% of all work performed by people around the world today is related to creating new technology (new iPhones, new rockets, ...) and that 30% is needed to maintain what we already have (farming, ...). Then we could get by working just 2 days a week!
Obviously, this wouldn't work: first of all, we would also get used to working just 2 days a week and because of that same flexibility, that would become the new norm and happiness levels would normalize rapidly (certainly for the next generation, who didn't witness the change).
Second of all, that's simply not how we work: there will always be someone, or some nation, breaking the pact to get ahead. Because of our fundamental drive to do so.
That means we must stay in the race to not fall behind. Or, shield your population from seeing progress outside your regime -- that could also lead to perhaps true happiness & quality of life. Until they come to claim your land with superior weapons perhaps. But in the connected world of today, it's hard not to see your neighbours' progress.
Conclusion: it seems impossible to stop innovating, as it will make you fall behind and lose (relative) quality of life.
Known solution, unknown problem
If we look at technologies, they usually seem to solve an existing problem: people die of cancer so we look for a cure. People spend time in traffic so we look for more efficient means of transportation. People have too little time in their lives, so they welcome more efficient calendar apps.
We see a problem and we get to work trying to solve the problem. So on the problem side, we know what we are trying to improve. But as is per definition the case with new technology, we don't know what the overall effect will be -- simply because it wasn't there before. There is no test data.
Consider this example: before the car was invented, cities were facing a shitty problem, literally, when horse and carriage were the norm. Streets were filled with excrement and a horseless driving machine would be a fantastic solution. So the car was solving a very well known problem (on top of many others). But it was impossible to conceive all of the new problems this would create. With just a dozen cars roaming around in the very beginning, who would ever ask the government to put a halt to this because it would contribute to global warming?
One reason for this is that, because the technology is per definition new, so are the possible problems it will create. You can try to predict those problems, but you can only do so from what you know today. And that view on the world does not include the new technology, so it's hard to envisage new problems. Because we don't know the future problems, we are often very welcoming to new technologies -- we're not very sceptical.
We now know climate change is a massive problem, but can you predict the next one? We're doing a million things wrong, some of them at the same level as climate change. But we simply don't know yet. Perhaps we'll find a correlation between cancer and WIFI signals. Maybe drilling hyperloop tunnels in rock formations that took millions of years to form will have catastrophic effects in a thousand years. We don't know, because it's new and because it's too complex.
Many of our technologies are trying to solve problems created by other technologies (like new methods of transportation to solve congestion -- caused by the invention of the car). And those new technologies might solve some of those problems, but will create new ones in the process. Which we'll then need to solve with even more technology.
It would be great if we could somehow assess if a new technology is likely to solve more problems than it creates. Analogous to COVID, it would be great if we could predict the "technological reproductive number" (TRN) of the problems around a technology. If we could only allow the ones with a number below one, the overall problem set would shrink. But many technologies are likely to have a number larger than one. Even electric cars, with their green promise, might have a "technological reproductive number" greater than one (intense mining of rare earth materials, heavier weight and thus more tire wear and particles, ...). A safer bet (i.e. a TRN < 1) would be to simply motivate people to buy fewer and smaller cars, no matter what the energy source.
Conclusion: technology usually solves known problems and creates unknown new ones. This makes us welcome technologies which often just increase the total problem set over time. And so we enter a vicious circle of solving the problems of technology with more technology.
The illusion of efficiency
A lot of technologies are literally presented as ways to improve our lives. Take for example an app that helps you keep track of tasks, to increase efficiency in your life. Or a microwave, saving you time heating your dinner in a pan. Or a car, getting you faster from A to B. The net result is that you do get more efficient per hour: you can get more things done.
What took us perhaps 8 hours a day a century ago (working the field, construction of a house, ...) takes us perhaps 2 hours a day today, thanks to efficient machines like tractors, drills, ... But those 6 hours of free time per day weren't "locked" as a permanent benefit. Instead, we used that time to invent new machines that would boost our efficiency even further. Simply because we have the capacity, simply because we can, simply because it would yield us yet another benefit as individual and/or as society?
Yes, the net result is that we can produce a lot more per hour spent per human -- that is undeniably so. But that efficiency has not been turned to our own, lasting personal benefit. So next time you read an article about how self-driving cars will provide you with loads of free time, how the next smartphone will improve the quality of your life through more efficient apps etc, just realize that the benefits are very temporary. Simply until it becomes the norm, which can happen very fast in this digital age.
Conclusion: efficiency gains in terms of output per person do not translate into lasting benefits on a personal level.
When something is wrong, we want to fix it -- that sounds quite normal. But perhaps it wasn't always like this. Before we had tools to build something, pills to cure something, watches to track time, perhaps we weren't so obsessed with fixing things, simply because we didn't have the tools.
These days, if there is a cure, a doctor will probably prescribe it to you. If there is a fix, we want it. A teacher once told me that cough sirup will cure you in just a week, instead of 7 days if you don't take it. I personally much like doctors who prescribe nothing, unless it's really, really necessary. But if I have a serious problem and there is a treatment, I also want the fix -- simply because it's possible. But if there is no fix available, I'll likely accept it (I'll have to).
With technology, it seems like we can come up with just about any possible fix, if we just put our minds to it. And perhaps that is true for even the wildest problems out there. But it does create this mentality of wanting something if it can improve (or has the promise to improve) the quality of your life.
A kitchen robot? Yes, gimme. An automated lawn mower? Oh yes, another 5 minutes saved per day. But in the process, we silently become massively dependent on all of this tech, end up needing a lot more space to store all of it, end up worrying about it when it is broke and having to work harder to pay for all of it.
Conclusion: technology seems to be able to fix almost anything, so we want things to be fixed. But we somehow become addicted to this, forgetting that sometimes accepting the way things are is also nice, and creates mental freedom.
Technological versus societal progress
This constant promise of technology to improve your life (however short lived the effect is, until it becomes the norm) creates the impression that we are constantly moving forward, improving lives all over the world.
The average happiness levels remain more or less constant, while technology levels keep increasing. Still, technological progress is often linked almost directly to progress of society. And this link is deeply embedded in societies: governments strive to always increase the Gross Domestic Product of their nation. Commercials present bigger TVs as a way to happiness.
I do believe the technological progress is there. But I don't agree it should be a synonym for progress as a society. Countries with a much lower GDP (per capita) can be a great place to live. The cultural values of small societies living in remote places can be much more advanced than the often individual thinking in megacities.
Very often, for every improvement a technology creates, we silently sacrifice something else. Smart phones & internet made us more connected, but slowly erode the "depth" of our social interactions. Electric bikes allow us to travel further, but for some eliminate the exercise that would keep them fit. This is strongly linked to "known solution, unknown problem": the rewards are immediate, the penalties are postponed (and obscured). So you get a very obvious feed of improvements parallel to a hidden feed of setbacks. This creates the illusion of continuous progress.
Conclusion: the coupling of technological progress and societal progress creates the illusion we are constantly improving our lives.
I wonder why I wrote this, and what the point was. Perhaps I just feel it would be nice of people could "unplug" themselves a bit more from this illusion that technology is the big saviour, to look at new technologies with a bit more scepticism. "Will this thing really improve my life in the long run?".
I'm not claiming to have reached this state myself: I really like technology, I started a company developing new technology and I really want SpaceX to get someone to Mars. Why? Simply because it's cool, not because I think it will improve our lives. Technology can be addictive, especially if you're the nerdy type.
Trying to conclude on the above, I think it doesn't matter much what we invent next. We're so flexible as a species that we will be as happy / unhappy either way. Technology has become a major framework against which we pitch our wellbeing, but perhaps it doesn't have to be this way. Perhaps we, as a society, can put more focus on actual wellbeing (like the happiness index).
And if we want to reduce our impact on climate and nature (again, I'm at least as guilty as the average person here, having travelled a lot), it would be nice to slowly but surely move away from this way of life where everything needs to be fixed for us, consuming more & more.
But then how should we achieve this? Here are some highly unrealistic suggestions, just there to trigger a discussion.
One of the driving factors of consumption is marketing -- the constant stream of messages presenting happiness through technology (all those smiling people in IKEA and Samsung commercials).
The thought of an ad-free existence sounds brilliant: not just an ad-blocker for your browser, but streets free of billboards, newspapers free of commercials, radio stations without interruptions, ... brilliant! I realize that many of the things we get for free are only there because ads drive the revenue. But then perhaps we don't need some of those things in the first place?
Businesses still need to thrive, so perhaps search engines would still be allowed. But without the sponsored links at the top. If kids would no longer be spoon-fed the desire for plastic toys, they wouldn't ask for them as much, right? (again, guilty here, having fun with RC cars with my kids and building stuff in the basement).
Screening new technology
Also completely unrealistic, but what if we had a group of people screening new technologies, predicting their "technology reproductive number"? To see if society really needs TikTok? If flying cars would add lasting improvements to our quality of life? If living longer through medication is actually worth it, once it becomes the norm? I know the latter is controversial, especially if it concerns your own relatives or yourself. But it's about the lasting effect on happiness, not just for those who witness it. Or perhaps that is the (selfish) essence of life / human nature -- improving your own quality of life while you can?
It would be very unrealistic to do such screening: first of all, we do not have the capability to properly predict the impact of technologies. They are new per definition, and thus so is their impact. And so it would be a fairly random process, dependent on the imagination and stance in life of the people doing so.
Secondly, blocking creativity by doing so also doesn't sound like a good plan, if you want people to enjoy their freedom. Copywriting the description of new technology so that it presents real progress would be the best paid labour in the country.
But perhaps governments can somehow take this into account when coming up with incentive schemes for new businesses -- to focus on those which make sense, rather than those which increase the GDP.
This one might be a bit more realistic. Perhaps we can introduce a course at school that presents research findings on how technological advancements over the past decades have not translated into more happiness. Or perhaps we can illustrate just how much an individual or family has to sacrifice in terms of time & money to achieve the latest tech, the most luxurious house, etc.
A potential problem is the fact that at the highest levels of society, there is a major push for STEM (science -- technology -- engineering -- math) to help maintain our competitiveness through technology. It'll be hard to turn this around, but perhaps not impossible.
Or can we only solve todays technology-generated problems with other technology? In that case, we should push ahead, only as long as the TRN is below
The ideal society
For many, the ambition is to earn more, have more, thinking this will lead to more happiness. In some countries, the focus has perhaps partly shifted away from this. Work-life balance seems to be quite good in Scandinavian countries, taking time off to take care of kids is quite common for dads in the Netherlands and so on. Perhaps in Europe as a whole, the more moderate pace of life has become the norm.
But then again, this luxury may be a very temporary one: maybe Europe is still surfing on the fading benefits of its colonial heritage, blind to see that Asia has long surpassed it in many domains. Maybe Europe will sober up, realizing that this work-life balance ideal was built on fading benefits, rather than it being a lasting, competitive model for society.
Or, perhaps Asia will reach the same desire for work-life balance. Although it feels like an illusion that the whole world will converge to the same system, it would be nice if nations could start to compete with one another based on just how relaxed life is in their country, rather than presenting high wages and tons of technology & luxury as the ultimate goal. A new ideal for society, where not technology but true, lasting wellbeing is the ultimate goal, sounds nice! (I know, until you're overrun by your technologically more advanced neighbour -- but humour me).
Each to their own
Perhaps the most important part is to just make up your own mind. Have a critical look at the tech in your life, at your desire for more. Are you really willing to sacrifice your time, money and health for more tech? Will the effect be lasting, not just for you but also for your kids?
Perhaps it's better in general to not take technology too seriously. Or to not take yourself too seriously when working on technology.
Time to think ☺️