Technology Has Its Place
Technology has always been central to human activity. Quantum leaps seem to be taking place these days, in some ways changing everything. We thought about three of these changes.
The first, and maybe biggest, is perhaps more social then technological—the sheer size of the corporations employing technological advances. We were there when the Sears catalogue gave us a new way to shop. But its influence was nothing close to that of the internet faces of Amazon or Google or Facebook. These companies, and their technological reach, are huge, enveloping, intimate and global as they use their incredible wealth to influence politics and publishing and retail and many other aspects of our commercial and civic lives. Is this a paradigm shift? The men who ran the biggest institutions in the early twentieth century had vast influence as well. But today’s enterprises feel different.
Big data is a big change too—in wonderful ways like the advance of targeted therapies, and in less wonderful ways. We know that nothing in life is free, but not all of us understood that our personal data was valuable property, and we were allowing it to be mined for the profit and benefit of others. Some of the social transactions to which we are parties are really new, and we need to catch up.
And what about machines that learn? Let’s suppose you buy Robot to mow your lawn. Robot learns to push people off the lawn to make mowing easier. Who is responsible for teaching Robot manners? You, because you own Robot? The company that made Robot—though it did not teach Robot this particular trick? Roscoe? Robot itself?
All of these socio-technological advances are profound in some ways, and require that we all figure out how to navigate a new world. But in other ways things stay the same. Because of that, we think we have a big role to play in normalizing technology. Because we Boomers are experienced, by virtue of our years, we are uniquely equipped to help think about how the rules should work. And while we love fabulous new technologies, we know they won’t change human nature, or the principles by which societies work. Technology has its place—to make our lives better and more productive. Not to control us.