James Richards of Chromatrope ponders what the world would be like if as a society we treated tech in the same way we now treat alcohol?
I work in London a lot, and this year more than ever, I’ve noticed that the festive season has brought a lot of very, very drunk people onto the streets. People want to have fun, and for lots of Brits, having fun equals getting as pissed as possible at the Christmas work party. We’ve all (probably) done it and I’ve certainly done it myself.
Some of us are trying to be a bit more mindful about how we approach both booze and ‘technology’. As a society we’ve seen plenty of critiques of binge drinking culture in the UK, and the media is forever pondering why we can’t all enjoy booze like the famously and possibly erroneously moderate French or Italians. The same is now the case for technology. Is it bad for us? Are we addicted to tech? Have we sleep-walked into a surveillance-capitalist-consumertariat dystopia from which there is no escape and no return?
As we all know from banning the mass consumption of alcohol in 1920’s America to the contemporary ’war on drugs’, prohibition doesn’t ever really work.
You can’t ban an idea, and if the idea is to drink, smoke, or drink un-taxed cups of tea, then people will find a way. Prohibition drives the market underground. Robber barons muscle in to make a killing from the human desire to party hearty, and the quality of the product degrades and becomes even less reliable and unsafe.
The consumption of alcohol within society, now happens within complex legal, social and healthcare frameworks that emphasise safe patterns of consumption and the rights of ‘users’ to protect their own health and the health of others. Society once thought it was acceptable for children to drink alcohol or drink and drive, but we now understand that isn’t safe or acceptable and clear legislation protects us all from the harm that alcohol can cause.
Like changing attitudes to alcohol, the best ways of protecting people from ‘bad’ technology is to change the culture of use.
Openness about our habits, and more human shaped patterns of consumption that emphasise quality over quantity and the socially beneficial aspects of moderate drinking are certainly mappable to tech.
Many of us have become critical, not of technology itself, but the way in which it’s appeal to us as upright mammals has been honed and concentrated to a point where some of us are seemingly ‘addicted’ to our devices. The big difference in this equation is that we don’t have to drink alcohol, but we do (increasingly) have to use technology.
Blaming technology for such a vast and wide ranging spectrum of problems is a bit like launching some Cultural Revolution style war against the sea, because every year people drown there. In any case, we can’t ban ‘bad tech’ because tech is both good and bad. Rather than banning the sea or fencing off beaches, we instead teach people to swim and provide buoyancy aids. By enabling people to make safe choices for themselves we protect them, and get to still benefit from all the good applications of tech.
There’s currently a great deal of hand wringing and debate about the dangers of tech, and how we can all collectively ‘do tech better’. The fact of the matter is that for many people, ‘technology’ as a thing doesn’t really exist.
Technology is buried within the phones, computers and applications that we all use. The tech products that now scaffold and enable our interactions, jobs, entertainments and lives are offered to us on a binary basis; the ones that we get for free but which mine and exploit our data; and the other expensive ones, that apparently still do the same.
When it comes to technology, maybe we need to stop worrying about whether tech is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; or whether it should be banned, but instead imagine what the meaningful, lasting and measurable steps towards harm reduction might be. Like the corporate booze pushers, we should be taxing the vast revenues of the tech companies, and investing a proportion of that tax in measures that help the most digitally dispossessed and vulnerable.
We need to be clear about the places and times where we feel it’s ok to consume technology. For many people a glass of wine with dinner is fine, cider for breakfast probably isn’t. The same applies to our dependency and relationship with technology. We have to be more honest about the lines between what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tech, and instead be explicit in our conversations about safe levels of harm reduction and apply palpable penalties to companies that obfuscate or lie about the relative ‘safety’ of their products.
What is tech for good? The short answer is that it’s the opposite of ‘tech for bad’ and ’tech for bad’ represents different things to different people.
For some, the problem lies with AI taking away our jobs. For others it’s AI’s role as amplifiers of bias and inequality within society. Other people are concerned about the existential threat that surveillance capitalism poses to our individual and collective privacies and freedoms. ‘Tech for bad’ has shaken democracy and skewed election and referendum results. Tech allows and enables the mass surveillance and control of huge populations, and in China is responsible for an entire generation subject to levels of dystopian social control that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. We’re told that tech is isolating and damaging and leads to bullying and blame. Some critics state that tech has brought us to a culture of snowflakes swirling in a never ending social media maelstrom of anger and offence. Tech is also marvellous. Like a hammer that can be used to either build an ark or used to bludgeon squirrels, technology is only as good or as bad as the hands that wield it. Raise a glass with me to toast the future of humane and mindful technology as we all stagger towards the new year. Cheers!