I am of the generation that feels it is owed hoverboards and robots, as if we thought that our future selves would live in some sort of glorious Jetsons / Pokemon hybrid. These days however I find myself avoiding movies like Ex Machina, uncomfortable with the dystopian future robot ruler overtones.
It turns out I am not the only one grappling with the paradoxical nature of technology. Nancy Gibbs (Editor of Time) is famed by many for leading the publication through its conversion to a fully digital newsroom. You would probably expect her to be an overwhelmingly positive lover of all things digital, but even Nancy isn’t sure. Recently I sat in on her Auckland lecture where Gibbs explored the highs vs. lows nature of tech in depth, a world that diminishes human contact, connection and empathy but can empower the population of Kenya to have access to financial infrastructure needed for growth via mobile money. Cellphones ease communication, but you can’t help but think we might have gotten it wrong along the way when more people have access to cellphone technology than fresh drinking water. Technology was meant to free us, but many of us find ourselves loaded down with devices trapped in a 24 hour world of remote work.
Every day I see the real potential for technology to create positive change, whether it be saving babies lives, or allowing our residents to simply run their own businesses, giving them and their families increased flexibility. But the recent tone of many conversations, talks, conferences and indeed my own exploration have not exactly been negative, but not entirely positive either. It can indeed be hard to be in tune to the world of tech in a time of surveillance, privacy exploits and possible bugs in aeroplanes.
So I’m not getting my hoverboard – and everything is terrible?
Yes and no. Firstly the hoverboard is in the works, and secondly whilst things may seem dark everyone seems at least a little positive. Even Cory Doctorow, famed for his unbelievably blunt (and thus depressing) take on technology says when asked if he’s optimistic about our future with tech, that it doesn’t matter because even if he thought everything was going to be a tech controlled surveillance state tomorrow he would still keep fighting the good fight – so that’s kind of optimistic right? Others, like Nancy Gibbs propose that how the future of tech pans out, depends on humans capacity to be good, leaving the door of positivity open in that knowing ‘you-best-do-your-best-to-change-it-then’ way that only people doing public speaking on such topics can do. But what does that actually mean for you and me?
Four ways we can help channel our tech driven future into the realm of positivity
Empower people to create and understand their technology
Evan Roth said something at Semi Permanent that really stuck with me, the position of user is inherently one lacking in power. You are given whatever device, application, piece of software or website making tool and you must work within the confines of it, often without understanding how it does what it does. A population of coders/engineers/data literate folks are creators that can turn this dynamic on its head, harnessing the technology for their own needs whilst understanding its implications. We can move from paint by numbers to being Picasso.
Ask about the benefit
As Frank Chimero points out, whilst many of us shake our fists at some of the situations we find ourselves in, we have in part been to blame. I myself have been responsible for a few quick and cheap flash microsites for clients that are now languishing unloved and hideously formed on the internet somewhere. How many of us have been part of a startup that vouched to change the world only to be the tinder for suits? How many digital marketers amongst us have used cookies in really intense and creepy ways (but got really great conversion – amirite?)? Those of us that work in technology have a pretty enviable position of asking ourselves – so what benefit does this actually bring? And if there isn’t one, having the choice to not do it. Moreover, those of us that are heavy consumers of tech could probably ask ourselves the same question. What benefit does this weird new wearable device actually bring to my life? What benefit is it to download this app really? What benefit is it to send this Facebook message when maybe I should just see my friend?
Upvote the rad, downvote the bad
So much of what Nancy Gibbs and others have talked about as being real negatives of people’s day-to-day interaction with digital boils down to resoundingly terrible behaviour from individuals online.
This is so ingrained as ‘something that just happens’ that we have amongst other things the ‘Greater Internet F*ckwad theory’ and Godwins Law – as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. The examples of awful behaviour online are many, from this weeks barrage of Tyler The Creator’s fans threatening an Australian feminist with death and rape via twitter to the Ellen Pao reddit hate storm of a few weeks back.
The ways to counter this are many, from calling out friends and family for taking part in such behaviour through to creating unified logins that know who you are in real life (eek!). Amongst this sea of sadness however, more positive stories can struggle to gain traction and scope. Last year whilst a twitter storm erupted over someone dating someone that they apparently should not have been dating, a local group of women dubbed ‘The Twitter Aunties’ rallied to gain support for a refuge for women and children. Whilst disabling negative conversation is one part of the story, refactoring to highlight positive stories has to be part of the plan too. And whilst the ‘how to deal with trolls question is much more complex, this idea of drawing focus to the positive is one that we can actively choose to make every day in our social encounters online.
Support the people and initiatives that fight for the world we want to live in
Supporting organisations and people that align with your vision of what a positive future harnessing technology is – should be a no brainer. I personally back EFF.org who lobby and create frameworks to provide increased electronic freedoms. However your particular joy may be security and privacy, access to technology, diversity or STEM. You may want to support the guys from InternetNZ, or you may just want to back a hoverboard kickstarter (which I could get behind as well).
Anya may be scared of robots but she loves to hear from people, find her on twitter here.