Are We Oppressed by Technology?

Do we really need an iPad 3 after it seems as if iPad 2 was released only a few months ago? Was it absolutely necessary that Google give us Google+? Do phones really have to be “smart” when the old cell phones were just fine? For that matter, is it really necessary that everyone on the planet be instantly reachable by wireless videophone?

The answer to each question is no. No innovation is absolutely necessary. In fact, the phone, flight, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the railroad — none of this is absolutely necessary. We could freely choose to live in a state of nature in which most children die in childbirth, those who do not live only a few decades and “medicine” amounts to sawing off limbs if you are lucky enough to have a tool that can accomplish the deed.

It’s true that those people who bemoan the pace of technological development are not really longing for the state of nature. They are just sick of being hounded, badgered, hectored and pushed — as they see it — constantly to learn new things, acquire new gizmos, keep up-to-date and buy the latest thing.

A survey from Underwriters Laboratories last year revealed that half of consumers “feel high-tech manufacturers bring new products to market faster than people need them.” There are many concerns such as privacy, safety, finances and the like, but mostly, I suspect that what’s behind the report is a more inchoate kind of unease.

Learning new things can be uncomfortable. People sense that they were getting along just fine with the technology of the last few years, so why should they upgrade? They sense that always going for the new thing implicitly casts aspersions on our current or past lifestyles.

I get this all the time when I talk to people about new stuff. Their first response is often: “No thanks. I’ve had it with all this techno wizardry and digital age mania. Whatever happened to a world in which people had authentic human contact, admired the beauty of God’s creations and developed genuine relationships, instead of virtual ones?”

We’ve all heard some version of this. So let’s be clear: There is nothing morally wrong with not adopting the latest thing. No one forces anyone to buy a smartphone, a fast computer, a fancier e-reader or whatever. There is no gun at anyone’s head. Technological upgrades are an extension of human volition — we can embrace them or not.

And temperaments are different. Some people love the latest thing, while others resist it. There are early adopters, there are late adopters and there are refuseniks.

I talked to a person the other day whose aging sister absolutely refuses to get a computer, an email address or a cellphone. Yes, such people do exist. When siblings want to contact her, they call or write a letter with a stamp. There is no sharing of photos, no video Skype, no keeping up with daily events. Everyone in the family is very close in the way that only digital technology allows, but this one person is the outlier, cut off from what everyone else experiences on a daily basis.

I asked if she feels cut off. The answer: Yes, and she is very unhappy about it. She complains that people don’t travel long distances to see her enough. They don’t call enough. She is losing track of what is happening with the grandkids. She has a constant sense that she is just out of it, and this depresses her.

Exactly. She is not actually happy with her choice. It’s just that making this choice seems easier than learning new things and buying new stuff. So she rationalizes her decisions as a principled stand against the digitization of the world.

My experience is that these people have no idea the extent to which they inconvenience others. In fact, I would say that it comes close to being rude. It is not immoral, but it sure is annoying. Instead of dropping an email or posting on a Facebook wall or clicking a button on Skype, family members have to write out up their communications and stick them in an envelope and find a stamp and walk to a mailbox and wait a week or two or three to get an answer back.

It’s all kind of crazy. People do it for a while, but then eventually find themselves annoyed and give up. Then the person on the other end gets angry and upset and feels ignored or cut off. This is their choice, too! It is a direct consequence of refusing to join the modern world.

Then there are the late adopters who pride themselves in not glomming on to the new gadget. They imagine themselves to be above the fray, more wise and prudent than their fellows. There is a reason they are called “late.” They eventually come around. Those who resist new technology are cutting themselves off from the stream of life itself.

True confession: I was once among the late adopters. I freely put down the techno enthusiasts. I wrote a highly negative review to Virginia Postrel’s provocative book The Future and Its Enemies, which turns out to have seen what I did not see. After the digital revolution advanced more and more, I began to notice something. By being a late adopter, I gained no advantage whatsoever. All it meant was that I paid a high price in the form of foregone opportunities. If something is highly useful tomorrow, chances are that it is highly useful today, too. It took me a long time to learn this lesson.

Finally, I did, and my fears, excuses, rationalizations and strange anti-tech snobbery melted away.

To really engage life to its fullest today means being willing to embrace the new without fear. It means realizing that we have more mental and emotional resources to take on new challenges. If we can marshal those and face these challenges with courage and conviction, we nearly always find that our lives become more fulfilling and happy.

The biggest canard out there is that the digital age has reduced human contact. It has vastly expanded it. We can keep up with anyone anywhere. We make new friends in a fraction of the time. That sense of isolation that so many feel is evaporating by the day. Just think of it: We can move to a new region or country and find ourselves surrounded by communities of interest in a tiny fraction of the time it used to take us.

As a result, digital media have made the world more social, more engaging, more connected with anything and everything than ever before. This isn’t a scary science fiction world in which the machines are running us; instead, the machines are serving us and permitting us to live better lives than were never before possible. Through technology, millions and billions have been liberated from a static state of existence and been granted a bright outlook and hope.

In the 19th century, people loved technology. The World’s Fair was the glitziest and most wonderful thing that happened in the course of the decade. Everyone wanted to celebrate the entrepreneurs who made it happen. Everyone understood that technology that succeeds does so because we as people have chosen it and that we chose it for a reason: It fits in with our search for a better life.

Perhaps that sense of optimism changed with the government’s push for the nuclear bomb. In World War II, we saw technology used for mass murder and ghastly accomplishment of human evil as never before seen in history. Then we went through almost 50 years in which the world was frozen in fear of the uses of technology. It wasn’t called the Cold War for nothing. When it finally ended, the world opened up and we could turn our energies again toward technology that serves, rather than kills, people.

The real “peace dividend” you hold in your hand. It’s your smartphone. It’s your e-reader. It’s the movies you stream, the music you have discovered, the books you can read, the new friends you have, the amazing explosion of global prosperity that has visited us over the last 10 years. This is technology in the service of the welfare of humanity.

In conclusion, no, we are not oppressed by technology. We can embrace it or not. When we do, we find that it brightens both the big picture and our own individual lives. It is not to bemoan, ever. The state of nature is nothing we should ever be tempted to long for. We are all very fortunate to be alive in our times. My suggestion: Try becoming an early adopter and see how your life improves.


Jeffrey Tucker
Executive Editor of Laissez-Faire Books, for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning