The Malady of Technology in Our Lives: Is Anyone Listening?

M. Jagadesh Kumar
Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi 110016

(How to cite this article: M. J. Kumar, “The Malady of Technology in our Lives: Is Anyone Listening?”, IETE Technical Review, Vol.30 (1), pp.1-3, Jan-Feb 2013.)

Technology is defined as “Science or knowledge applied to a definite purpose” [1]. For centuries, technology has continued to affect human lives. In the recent past, communication platforms such as internet, computers, i-pods and smart mobile phones have influenced us more than any other technology [2]. As time evolves, more such technological tools will make their way into our lives and transform the way we think, interact and progress.

Technology does enhance human capabilities in terms of what humans can do now compared to what they did a few decades ago. However, integration of technology in every sphere of our life seems to be making us weaker both physically and intellectually turning us into mere consuming robots than productive human beings. While technology rapidly evolves and remains modern, we as human beings are becoming obsolete. Faster evolution of technology only adds to our feeling of inadequacy since we are constantly in a race to catch up and possess the new technological tools.

Does engaging ourselves with the modern electronic applications take away from us the power of innovation? Do we get time to reflect about ourselves and our surroundings? Does technology affect the balance between our work and leisure time since we are expected to be online and available all the time? Is our privacy being invaded unhindered? If our lives become so acculturated with technology, will we be able to continue to focus and draw attention to the issues that affect us? Doesn’t an exuberant dependence on technology make us more vulnerable? Is it not time to be serious about assessing new technologies for their impact on us? The objective of this article is to look at some of these questions briefly.

Technology makes it easier for us to accomplish many tasks without any physical and mental effort. That is a big destroyer of two things: our physical mobility and mental ability. Let me look at a few examples.

When you step on the road it is not uncommon to see nearly everyone in the streets talking or texting from a mobile phone immersed in their own virtual world. Many of us, primarily youngsters, tend to be more pre-occupied with the visual media such as online games, you-tube, i-pods and GPS enabled smart phones. The problem with this media is that information keeps changing continuously since it is a real-time media. Isn’t true that while knowledge is always bounded, imagination has no limits? However, users dependent on visual media hardly get time for reflection and imagination which are essential ingredients for developing critical thinking skills [3].

The negative effects of violence in online games, such as aggressive behaviour and lack of sensitivity to real life violence, are now well documented. While children below two years are not recommended to use technology, they end up watching TV for not less than couple of hours [4]. This makes them spend less time exploring their surroundings resulting in a reduced motor and psychological development. The practice of reading from the print media is generally declining among the children and even adults. A recent Oxford university study, involving 17,200 people, has shown that regular reading habits will likely to enhance their ability to do well academically and later in their professional careers [5].

The implications of internet addiction are well understood [6,7]. This is no different from any other forms of addiction such as alcohol or drug addiction which can play havoc with our ability to carry out our social responsibilities. We seem to be meeting too many persons in the virtual world while our conversations with people around us are on a decline. Our bonding with keypads and touch screens is only making us disconnect with the real world resulting in unexpected effects.

Social media paradoxically may lead us to social isolation. Our emotional needs cannot be met by virtual relationships. Use of too much social media technology, such as facebook, twitter and my space, momentarily increases our self-esteem and makes us loose our self-control [8]. Lack of self-control, as in the case of addictive alcohol consumption, can lead to undesirable social behaviour.

Isn’t technology supposed to enhance the existing societal and individual styles of our lives and provide solutions to our needs? The rapid integration of technology in over lives seems to be doing the opposite. Spirituality, ethics and human sciences appear to be pushed to the background by the sudden surge of technological evolution [9]. Technology makes everything a few steps nearer and as many of us continue to experience, the application of technology has often ended up as a problem embedded as part of the solution. Can we draw some lessons here?

Technology will continue to forge ahead and there is no doubt that we will adapt ourselves to the new technologies because of its innumerable advantages. However, along with the technological developments, should we not also evolve methods which will enable us to be selective about the choice of technologies? Should a technology be adopted by society just because it seems useful at the time of its entry although its future impact is poorly understood?

We often deploy a given technology, even when it is not acceptably safe and know that it will have indirect and unanticipated negative fall outs on society. Once a technology becomes widely accepted in everyday life, we also become less sensitive about the risks versus benefits reassessment and accept the risks associated with technologies without any serious thought. Today, technology has become so integrated in our lives that we seem to have acquired a completely blurred risk perception.

The transformative impact of new technologies on societies could be immense. It is not always conceivable to foresee the potential influence of new technologies while we are still mesmerized by its appealing “benefits”. However, before a technology becomes part of our everyday living and begins to influence the way we live and interact with each other, we need to assess the technology for its likely societal, environmental and economic implications. Technology assessment is about values and a deep reflection, and analysis of human survival’s interdependence on each other and nature. Kleinman defines technology assessment as “a practice intended to enhance societal understanding of the broad implications of science and technology” [10].

Universities and higher educational institutes can play an important role in innovating technology assessment methods and training of researchers to be able to carry out research and analysis. But sadly, these are issues of least prominence in our science and engineering curriculum. As Kleinman says, public engagement in technology assessment is vital too since they will bring in “life experiences and social values” which are seldom in the domain of the experts. A wider involvement in technology assessment will enable in incorporating public concerns while making policy decisions on technological evolutionary trajectories [10]. There are already evidences of how this participatory technology assessment can lead to “significant learning and opinion changes” in the evolution of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology [11].

Only when we recognize the importance of technology assessment before any new technology gets entrenched in the society, will we realize a meaningful balance between happy living and robotic existence. Technology assessment is not a one-time task but an incessant process and should evolve at a much rapid rate. Or else, we will remain to be submerged in the unanticipated outcomes of new technologies. Unfortunately, there is no adequate focus and informed discussion on these issues in the public domain except in a few cases [11, 12].

The odds against those suggesting a careful assessment and a balanced integration of technology in our lives are staggering and such advocates may even be considered as anti-technology and old-fashioned. Given the situation, it is time for a concerted effort to rethink whether to adopt technology assessment as an integral part of technology development and if so, how soon we should do it. The fertile ground to create this appreciation is the schools and colleges where we groom the future technology creators and its users.

Isn’t reaping the benefits of new technologies as important as being cognizant of their destabilizing effects? As scientists and academicians, we have an obligation to raise awareness among our youngsters and general public no sooner than later. Is anyone listening?

References:
[1] D. Banta, “What is technology assessment?”, International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care, Vol.25, pp. 7-9, 2009.
[2] J. Sullins, “Information Technology and Moral Values”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/it-moral-values/.
[3] “Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis?”, ScienceDaily, University of California – Los Angeles, January 29, 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090128092341.htm
[4] “Children, Adolescents and Television”, American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education, Pediatrics, Vol.107 (2), pp.423-426, 2001.
[5] http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2011/110804.html
[6] L. Leung and P.S.N. Lee, “Impact of Internet Literacy, Internet Addiction Symptoms, and Internet Activities on Academic Performance”, Social Science Computer Review, Vol.30, Issue:4, pp.403-418, November 2012.
[7] S. W. Choi, “Internet addiction: Why we become addicted to the Internet?”, Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, Vol.4, Special Issue: SI Supplement: 1, pp.12-12, October 2012.
[8] K.Wilcox and A.T. Stephen, “Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control”, Journal of Consumer Research, Forthcoming Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 12-57, Date posted: October 3, 2012. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2155864
[9] B. Popoveniuc, “Psycho-logic within techno-logical settings,” European Journal of Science and Theology, Vol.9, pp.143-155, February 2013.
[10] D.L. Kleinman, “Rethink Technology Assessment”, Issues in Science and Technology, Vol.27, Issue: 2, pp.20-22, 2011.
[11] D.H. Guston, “Participating Despite Questions: Toward a More Confident Participatory Technology Assessment”, Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol.17, pp.691-697, December 2011.
[12] http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/techself/

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11 Responses to The Malady of Technology in Our Lives: Is Anyone Listening?

  1. Kushal Shah says:

    I think that the root cause of the above problem is that people have begun mistaking intelligence for wisdom. All parents pray for their children to be intelligent and smart, but they forget that this will not guarantee that their child is also wise. However, wisdom is a much more important quality to have as compared to intelligence and smartness. An intelligent person with no wisdom is like a speeding Ferrari without brakes. Perfect recipe for disaster!

    Over the past thousands of years, Indian sages have gathered a wealth of knowledge and wisdom about the right way to lead a life. However, this wisdom is not imparted in our schools and colleges since people tend to give it the color of religion. We need to understand that the Upanishads and Gita have nothing to do with any particular religion and can be a great source of guidance for people from all walks of life and all professions.

    Management institutions have started realizing this and some management gurus do teach many ideas using lessons from the Gita. I wonder when engineering and other colleges will start doing the same.

    • Avishek Shaw says:

      I completely agree with your point here. In the gurukul system, education was much different than what it is today. Students were taught to think properly and wisely. This ability to think and gather wisdom seems to be missing in modern education. Subjects like philosophy and psychology should be taught to kids in school so that they develop a strong moral ground and become wise. Strong emphasis on Science and Math is going to produce the result we are seeing today. Its high time that the education system be revamped.

  2. K V Subba Rao says:
  3. Very well articulated piece of writing, Jagadesh!
    As to the ‘Malady of Technology’, the question is as new to the humankind, as the ‘lighting a fire’ or the wheel.
    Man invents technologies out of his necessity to free himself from the routine so that he can utilize his mind for more important things in life that should have a higher priority.
    Those who are stuck in the routine which the technology has relieved, end up with an idle mind. Of course, ‘An idle mind is a devil’s workshop’. It is indeed the ‘devil’s workshop’ that churns out other applicationsof the technology that end up as malady

    So, the real malady is the idleness of mind and not technology.