On Monday this week, a radio presenter asked me to talk positively about technology. In the wake of stories about the WannaCry malware and AI taking over, he wanted to reassure his — largely older — audience that technology was a positive thing that could be trusted. I don’t think I did a great job, responding to a question about AI taking over with the rather ambiguous “They’re not… yet.”
How positive you feel about technology depends on what you mean by the term. Like this presenter, when most people ask me about technology, they typically mean the diverse members of the computer family, from phones to consoles.
I prefer a broader definition of technology. I have two favourites. The first, with apologies/thanks to Zanussi, is simply “the appliance of science”. This includes the broadest sweep of human-made tools, from the spear to the supercomputer.
The second captures a simple truth about technology. “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” Alan Kay, as ever, bringing sharp and pithy insight. The point is, if it’s older than that, it’s just ‘stuff’. Hence why ‘technology’ today tends to refer to computers and their brethren.
Toilets are technology
If you take my broad definition of technology as being science applied, then it’s much easier to talk about its positives. For the simple reason that we wouldn’t be here in our current numbers — or some would argue, even our current biological form — without technology. Technology is what allows us to feed ourselves, whisks away our waste, keeps us warm. People may be afraid of a computer but they’re generally comfortable with a flushing toilet or a radiator.
On better form I could have made the argument for computers being a clear positive too, and one with which everyone should be comfortable. Just take one example: the world wide web. Instant access for a large fraction of the global population to a large fraction of the world’s knowledge. That is an unarguable good.
At least until events like Monday night happen.
Closing the box
I have nothing useful to add about what happened on Monday, or about the immediate response. Many of my friends here in Manchester have already written more movingly and insightfully than I could manage.
What I can say, is that in the wake of such an atrocity, there are many questions. Attention will undoubtedly turn to the role of technology, in connecting the weak-minded to the ill-intentioned. In enabling the flow of hate that has followed. Already, politicians are starting to take advantage of the incident to further agendas of greater control and reduced privacy.
But technology — and access to it — is not, and never has been, the problem. To try to limit its reach and capability is to deny our nature as a race of toolmakers. A race whose very existence is bound to our ability from the earliest days to apply science. The problem is not the technology we have but how we apply it and to whom the benefits accrue. These are issues of policy and economy, not science and technology.
Technology will not save us. But we can use it to save ourselves.