Every new technology seems to give rise to hand-wringing about its potential impacts. Are screens making kids anxious and depressed? Is social media increasing political polarization? Do remote work tools boost productivity or kill productivity (or both)? Will improvements in A.I. replace drudgery with abundance or kick off an accidental apocalypse? Each innovation gives rise to a new corresponding flavor of anxiety.
Given that people have been fretting about technology at least since the advent of the written word (Plato worried that writing would destroy young people’s memories), these kinds of discussions are probably inevitable. According to tech writer L.M. Sacasas, they’re also often conducted in a less than ideal way.
New technology isn’t simply ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
In a fascinating recent appearance on the podcast of New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, Sacasas explains that too often when we discuss new technology, we look for blanket answers. Is this thing good or bad? Should I adopt it fully or reject it entirely? Sacasas pushes back against this tendency, telling Klein “part of the point that I often try to make is that something can be morally significant without necessarily being good or bad by itself.”
All tools make it easier or harder to do particular things. They push us to think or behave in particular ways. They spotlight particular perspectives and hide others. Having a cell phone with a camera constantly in your pocket makes it much more likely you’ll take pictures of your vacation or your kids. Delivery apps save you time but might disrupt family dinner. Whether shifts like that are for the better or no depends on your goals, values, and circumstances.
So how should you start to think through these more subtle tradeoffs and decide what technologies you personally want to adopt and when? In his newsletter The Convivial Society, Sacasas recently outlined 41 questions we should ask of the technologies we use. If that sounds like too much for you, fear not. Klein helpfully whittled them down to just 10 of the most important to get you started:
1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
As Klein’s fascinating podcast makes clear, these aren’t yes/no, right/wrong type questions. In the episode the two men talk through how each question might be applied to a particular technology, illustrating how these questions nudge you to think more deeply about what you gain and lose when you choose to let a given tool into your life.
Ask these questions yourself and you should come away armed with the information you need to make more informed decisions about which new innovations to use and how.