technology is not neutral

Illustration of an empty and a full bottle

How happy do you feel when you receive a “Happy Birthday” greeting on social media?

For me, the answer is “not at all”. Social media platforms send reminders of my friends’ birthdays. I get notifications, and even specific suggestions that I should send them a birthday greeting. When I see it is Anna’s birthday, do I send a message? Did I already know it was Anna’s birthday? Do I really care that it is her birthday? Do we even talk to each other? Or am I thinking about sending her a birthday greeting only because my social media platform suggested I should?

Will it matter to Anna if I don’t send it? Will she notice I haven’t sent it? Or will it be just one less thing for Anna to “like” or “heart” and skim over before she posts the obvious and mostly meaningless “Thanks for all the wishes” message. It all feels so superficial to me. One comment more or less won’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if Anna reads the birthday greetings. And if Facebook is the one doing all the work to get me to send the greeting, isn’t my involvement more or less incidental?

So much for genuine and heartfelt wishes.

The team behind the birthday reminder feature on Facebook probably thought it would bring real benefit to Facebook users, helping them to stay in touch with their friends and making their loved ones’ birthdays a little more special.

Facebook birthday greetings are just one example of a truth that applies to all technology: technological change is always a trade-off. For every new advantage, feature, and possibility there is always a corresponding disadvantage, anti-feature, and limitation. Neil Postman puts it best in his book Technopoly:

It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.

It will always be both: never one or the other. And this holds true for all technology, from simple birthday reminders on social media, to smartphone apps, AI, or even voting machines. No matter how small or insignificant a new technology seems, it brings both burdens and blessings with it. This is something we always forget when developing and creating new technologies.

The disadvantage might be bigger than the advantage. Or the disadvantage might be well worth the cost. This should be obvious, but many people — especially in the technology field — think that any new technology, tool, or gadget is always better. People celebrate the possibilities of new gadgets, devices, or apps with boundless enthusiasm, but completely neglect their shortcomings.

The greater the impact of a technology, the greater the negative consequences will be.

Neil Postman used the car as an example. Imagine we are at the beginning of the 20th century, and the car has just been invented. We decide to make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of this new technology. Advantages might be mobility, freedom, independence, ability to live far from your workplace, the possibility of holidays, and ease of transportation. The disadvantages would include car accidents, air pollution, the need for suburbs, dependency on oil, and traffic jams. Looking at both lists, we could now ask whether the benefits of the car outweigh the burdens.

We might think that the benefits are worth it. Or we might think it is something we should leave alone. We might even find some kind of middle ground.

I am not arguing against the car, or even against technology. But if we think this might be a great innovation for all of humanity, we should also look at the disadvantages, and see if it is still such a great idea overall. And if we decide it is, how would we mitigate the negative consequences? How would we make sure the negative impacts were minimized? How would we establish guard rails to shield us from the negative aspects?

Instead of asking only what benefits a new technology, feature, or gadget has, we need to also ask what this technology will abolish or undo. And this second question is so important, especially now, because it is so rarely asked. We desperately need a complete perspective on all technology, new and old.

As a culture, we always pay the price for our technology. And it is time we understood the implications of the technologies we create.

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