How To Think About New Technology
New technology is tempting – but often unaffordable, in terms of either time or money. So, how should we think about it?
Apple just released a cool new computer, the Mac Studio. I want one. Every year, Apple launches some kind of tempting tech. I keep looking at the sleek and seductive Air Pods Max, for example, even though I already have too many headphone sets.
TikTok is the cool new thing in social media. I’ve always been up for experimenting on new platforms. MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Vine, Periscope, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, 500px, and many more. Should I try TikTok?
We’re now on the verge of a revolution in digital technology. Virtual reality, augmented reality, web3, NFTs, cryptocurrencies, DAOs. Some of these might fizzle. Others won’t. The trend feels too big to ignore.
What are we to make of it? And how do we find the time to figure out what matters to us?
It’s tempting to just give up and go and live in a cabin in the woods.
But maybe we don’t need to do anything so extreme!
A Mental Model For New Technology
There’s a way you can think about new technology. It can help you figure out where to invest your energy and attention. The mental model has three parts:
Anything can seem interesting, but it’s worth asking why. Is it just novelty? Some “Wow, that’s cool” factor? Are you frustrated with your life? Or bored? What is it?
Next, it’s important to ask if this thing solves a problem for you. Every new gadget promises to make your life better, but will it really make your life simpler? Will it solve a problem you’re currently facing or just create a new one?
Finally, it’s crucial to ask what environmental impact the new tech has. How sustainable are the products it’s made from? Can it be powered by renewable energy? Can it be recycled when it becomes obsolete?
Sustainability also matters on a human level. What are the potential consequences for our mental health of relying on the tech? What are the wages and working conditions of the people who make it? Does it raise privacy concerns? What financial or social risks does it invite? And, of course, do you have the time required to make it work or keep it running?
Reflect On Your Interests
The Weather is a large exhibition of work by Laurie Anderson. This mix of installations, planting, sculpture and video installation is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. Walking around the displays, I was most taken with a large room, white words and drawings on charcoal walls, as if the artist’s notebook had exploded out into space. One phrase in particular caught my attention, especially since Anderson is a renowned innovative artist and one of the first to work with music tech like vocoders and CDs and media like virtual reality.
“If you think technology will solve your problems then you don’t understand technology – and, you don’t understand your problems.”
– Laurie Anderson
Almost universally, we believe that technology can fix our problems, whether it’s something practical, like being more productive at work, or existential, like feeling less lonely.
When a new tech story catches your attention, ask why.
It’s easy to use daydreaming about tech as a way of procrastinating. I love reading Apple gossip sites like MacRumors or music tech blogs like Create Digital Music. It can be a fun way to spend a moment. It can also be a waste of time.
Focus On Solving Problems
An obsession with every new piece of tech can amount to self-sabotage, robbing us of agency in what we do. The phrase Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS, was coined to describe this. It’s not a medical term. Just something musicians coined to describe this phenomenon.
Maybe we can’t solve our problems unless we buy some new thing or sign up to some service. But chances are this isn’t true.
A good way to avoid this is to reflect on the challenges we face as part of some system, like journaling. For example, writing this piece is taking some time. Right now, I’m on my eleventh revision. It’s frustrating. Would switching writing apps change this? No, not really. The problem is me, or this piece, or something else.
When I first switched to Scrivener, I had problems with backing up my work properly, with apps like Pages or Word crashing, and with managing large writing projects. An app that approached these technical problems differently helped me overcome those challenges.
If your problem is specifically technological, then another kind of tech might be the answer. If your problem is something more existential, then a conviction that a new kind of tech is the solution might be masking the real problem.
Focus On Sustainability
Every new thing we buy or sign up for invites new commitments. Last year, my bank decided to issue me a new credit card for my “convenience”. I had to manually change my payment settings on every subscription service. It made me think about how much I spend each year on software and streaming and other services. But it was also a reminder of how much time it takes to maintain it all.
Sustainability has two components. The first, and most important, is environmental sustainability. Technologies like crypto currencies are massively resource hungry and there’s real questions over whether our planet can sustain their widespread adoption. Electric vehicles are probably the way forward for transportation, but there are also issues around how key components, like cobalt for batteries, are extracted.
We’ve long passed the point where we can just adopt any new technology simply because it offers some sort of benefit. We also need to weigh the cost as well.
Sustainability also relates to how tenable our human relationship is to the technology. There’s a widespread but misguided belief that we can infinitely expand our attention, focus, and time to accommodate every innovation. We can’t.
Prioritise Your Humanity
In airport security lines, you often encounter an automated machine where you have to stand, arms above your head, to be scanned for dangerous items. You can often ask to be manually screened instead. Writing in a recent Orion Magazine, musical artist Paul Keeling described why he always takes the “human option.”
Keeling suggests many new technologies end up limiting how much human interaction we have each day. Things like supermarket self-checkouts mean fewer opportunities for small talk and simple acts of kindness. Automation increasingly creaks human connection.
“I simply refuse to go along with the cult of convenience. I affirm the beautiful inconvenience of life. I stand up for my fellow humans.”
– Paul Keeling
This calls to mind the way the Amish approach technology. In popular culture, the Amish are depicted as being anti-technology. It’s not that simple. While we often assess new technology by the convenience it provides or the status it confers, the Amish look at the impact it will have on the community.
This reaction isn’t based on fear. It’s driven by values.
The “You Don’t Understand” Objection
Unfortunately, deciding for yourself which technology to adopt won’t do for some people. They’ll automatically accuse you of not understanding, of being like people who ridiculed the advent of the internet, or the computer, or even the printing press!
This isn’t an argument. It’s a reaction – the kind we expect from cult followers or religious extremists. Any doubt is a sign of apostasy. Better to burn the heretic than stop to ask if maybe they were onto something.
I quit Facebook in 2009. I gave it a try. I had hundreds of “friends”. But it was clear then the platform wasn’t offering me anything I wanted in my life. And I didn’t trust the company either. Since then, nothing has happened to change my mind.
Once again, either/or thinking doesn’t help us. The equation that says you’re either onboard with every new innovation or you just don’t understand because you’re a luddite is senseless.
You can both understand new tech and be interested in innovation and fresh ideas AND believe not every new technology is good for you, or for us in a collective sense.
The Myth Of The Printing Press
Before books, people barely read or weren’t allowed to. Then a dude invented the printing press and overnight the world changed. Literacy rates shot up as everyone started reading books. Some people didn’t like it, saying the new technology would undermine society, but everyone quickly adapted.
This is the way the story of the printing press is commonly told. It’s used as a cautionary tale whenever anyone criticizes a new piece of technology. “They said the same thing about the printing press” is the common refrain.
But the problem with this story is that it’s almost completely untrue.
First, Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press. The technology to print words was developed in China, Korea and Japan and had already been around for a long time. Even the problem of Moveable Type, which Gutenberg is commonly claimed to be the first to solve, had been unlocked in Korea 150 years before the German’s work.
What Gutenberg did was create the first commercially viable bookmaking process. Investors had been looking for a design for bookmaking. Others were trying at the same time. Gutenberg got there first.
But literacy levels didn’t dramatically change as a result. To say they did is to collapse a hundred or more years of history into a lifetime.
The advent of the printing press initially did little to change literacy rates for farm and manual laborers or for women. As late as 1630, a third of grooms and two thirds of brides couldn’t sign their own marriage register in Amsterdam, despite a flourishing local print industry.
What The Printing Press Really Did
What really changed was the shape of literacy. Books allow greater standardization of language, grammar and idiom. They lend themselves to sharing complex ideas and scientific knowledge. A translation reproduced in a book is consistent, unlike translations made by monks or other individuals that vary every time a document is copied.
The effect of these changes is seen most clearly in the shape of religious debates at the time. What were once closed door debates between church scholars became a matter of public interest. As books about new theological ideas became more commercially popular, printers were inspired to make more books. Although many were censored, presses flourished in places like the Netherlands, where there was no censorship and a strong merchant class.
The change that doesn’t get enough attention is the role of printing technology in the growth of education. The rise of a new social class made up of artisans, merchants, and other professions was changing Europe. This created a massive demand for new schools to educate the young in new scientific and religious ideas.
So, while the printing press did change the course of history, the change was slower, more complex, and intertwined with other historical forces than the simple version of the story suggests.
Society had generations to adapt to the technology of the printing press and the cultural changes it made possible. Many of the scientific works that we associate with the advent of printed books were published centuries after Gutenberg fired up the press.
Technology Exists Within History
By contrast, the internet has changed our lives within one generation. The way we work, shop, learn and travel has all fundamentally changed. We’ve barely had time to figure out what it all means.
This alone should be enough to make us pause to consider how we are changing our culture.
One way in which digital technologies are fundamentally different is the trail of data they create.
Recently, we looked at Twitter. One challenge Twitter would face if it tried to verify more users is creating a rich target for hackers. We’ve all had emails saying our data may be subject to a leak.
But a lot of user data is readily for sale. The dating app Grindr has been selling user data since 2017. Back in 2018, it was reported that period tracking apps were selling data about women’s health to marketers.
SafeGraph is a company that sells smartphone-user data. It reportedly sold data to the CDC that could be used to monitor pandemic guideline compliance. And they are selling data of people who visit abortion clinics. This New York Times article explains how this works.
Given what is happening in US courts right now, it’s not surprising many are suggesting full deletion from period tracking apps unless that data is sold for possible future prosecutions.
We have to weigh the social implications of the technology we use. Innovation doesn’t automatically lead us towards better social outcomes.
Avoiding Drama Is a Superpower
Back in 2014, I wrote about Why Pros Don’t Always Upgrade. I described visiting a graphic designer’s studio and seeing them doing great work on an old computer running outdated software. That pro had done what many pros do – prioritize productivity and stability over using the latest cool tools.
To put it another way, they’d decided to avoid the drama.
Richard Rohr writes about how, as we get older, we often want less drama in our lives. This is true of the people we associate with and the places we want to be. Less noise, less distraction, less emotional cost.
These tendencies suggest the desire to put new technology in context is a natural consequence of taking our professional and personal lives seriously. If you know what you want from life, you’re better positioned to decide if some new thing can help you get there.
This involves understanding why stuff triggers your interest, being able to answer whether it will help you solve your problems, and whether or not it’s sustainable.
So, am I buying the new Mac Studio? Yes, probably, but only after I have a new studio to use it in. Not while I’m packing, and moving, and facing all the uncertainty of this present year. For now, everything I need to do can be done with my 2011 Mac Mini.