Five Questions to Ask of Any New Technology

“Because we can” is not an adequate reason to pursue a new technology. Nor is “because it is new.”

Eric Weiner

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Photo by Smithore, Unslpash

“You can’t stop progress” surely ranks as one of the most dangerous myths of our time. So deeply ingrained is this reflexive passivity that we rarely stop to question it. The result: we give new technology a pass. Otherwise rational, skeptical people wholly embrace new technologies in ways they would never embrace, say, a new religion or philosophy or political party.

This is no harmless blind spot. By automatically assuming any new technology is good because it is new (and because it is technology) we voluntarily surrender our agency, and diminish our humanity.

I am no Luddite. I am not suggesting we return to the cave or dial-up modems. Being against technology is like being against food. Silly. But we don’t eat just anything. We know that what we eat, and how much, matters. We read the labels, and sometimes we put that box of fudge-covered Oreos back on the shelf.

Likewise, we need to treat new technologies, and the frothy claims accompanying them, with the same rigor we’d treat any other human assertion. We need to ask questions. Here are five.

1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?

Mesmerized by the bells and whistles of a new technology, we often ignore this crucial question. What exactly is the problem this innovation solves, and is it worth solving? In the case of, say, antibiotics, the answer is clear: These wonder drugs solve the problem of serious, sometimes fatal, bacterial infections. In the case of, say, supersonic air travel the answer is less clear. Is it truly a problem that it takes six hours instead of three to fly from New York to London? Or is this technology merely supplying, “improved means to unimproved ends,” as Thoreau said?

“Because we can” is not an adequate reason to pursue a new technology. Nor is “because it is new.” Western cultures equate creativity with novelty; for us to consider something, anything, creative it must represent a radical break from tradition. Not so in Confucian countries such as China. The Chinese are less concerned…

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Eric Weiner

Philosophical Traveler. Recovering Malcontent. Author of four books, including my latest: “The Socrates Express.”