Technology and Us
I remember when Hurricane Katrina struck the southeast coast of the United States in September 2005. The high winds and flooding caused such enormous damage that the city of New Orleans is still recovering from it. Powerful waves also destroyed thirty oil-drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and disrupted the flow of oil from off-shore wells to the mainland. The resulting oil shortage exacerbated the public unease caused by the storm. In response, then president George W. Bush appeared on television and urged everyone to use less oil until the pipelines could be repaired.
“Don’t worry,” the president told the people. “Technology will find a solution.”
Two things about Bush’s statement struck me as odd. One was the way he referred to technology as an entity somehow separate from human endeavor: he did not say that human beings – technicians, engineers or oil company executives – would get the US out of its predicament. Something called “technology” would.
The second, related to the first, was the implication that, having turned technology into an independent entity, we were relying on it to get us out of trouble. We have handed responsibility for our salvation over to this thing called technology. In other words, we were not in control of the rescue operation, technology was.
When critics of technology argue that human beings have become “slaves of the machine,” they mean that we have assigned to this process called technology the power to dictate and control our actions. Like worker-ants in a gigantic ant colony, we unthinkingly carry out functions assigned to us by a distant and abstract authority.
It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, technology began as a means of bending nature to our will. At the close of the Pleistocene Era, roughly 10,000 years ago, when the end of the last Ice Age permitted the rapid growth of agriculture, humans developed a primitive form of farming that did not require tools. It wasn’t until about 3,000 years later that implements such as axes and ploughs were developed as means of making it easier to work the land. At that time, we still controlled technology, which in turn allowed us to control our environment.
At some point in our history, however, we relinquished control of technology. By becoming reliant upon machines and the systems that support them for our survival, we became more attuned to their needs than to our own. In fact, their needs became our needs. For example, as human beings, we don’t need oil: machines need oil. But since we believe that we need machines, we have come to believe that we need oil.
When did this change in our relationship with technology occur? And why? What are the consequences for our relationship with ourselves, our environment, and our future?