Technological Wisdom

As we use information technologies, “we develop the cognitive skills best suited for them and neglect those capacities that are less well matched,” Kanner writes. “We mold ourselves to the machine.” Credit: Creative Commons/Keoni Cabral.

Human beings are destined to mold the Earth. Gifted with exquisite hands, passionate imaginations, and boundless curiosity about how things work, we need to tinker, prod, poke, and build. It is in our genes, and our souls, to engage so completely with our physical surroundings that we alter them, just as the abundant fertility of the planet could not help but produce us. Indeed, our propensity to construct and redo may be a flamboyant expression of the generativity of our evolving world, which in its four-and-a-half-billion-year history has never ceased to cast itself anew.

To be against technology is to deny a crucial part of human nature. Today, however, it has become extremely difficult to fully appreciate or ponder our ability to make things. Instead, we are caught in a tragically flawed philosophy called “technological progress” that blinds us to the numerous choices we have, the various ways open to us to become both wise and creative technological beings. It is as if we had decided that the only proper use of our legs is to run, and run as hard as we can, at every possible moment.

At present, our modern machines are polluting the Earth, increasing the pace and stress of daily life, and transforming our environment faster than we can comprehend. We are experiencing one wave of future shock after another and cannot seem to slow down long enough to figure out why. We can only have faith that the next set of advances—nanotechnology, bioengineering, virtual reality—will magically save us.

As an ecopsychologist, I am interested in the personal relationships we each have with the natural and built worlds and how these relationships interact. Our many inventions and devices are not only altering the face of the planet, but also radically changing our connection to nature, to each other, and to ourselves. These are profound changes worthy of our most serious attention.

Yet at present there is no “psychology of technology,” if by this we mean a systematic examination of the myriad influences of each innovation on our psyches, our relationships, our identities. This is a curious state of affairs, especially since psychology has turned its magnifying glass onto so many other aspects of our lives. But my profession is itself caught up in the sweep of technological progress and assumes that each “advancement” is ultimately positive, inevitable, or both.

An alternative view, and one that ushers in the full psychological complexity of technology, conceives of our capacity to mold the Earth as engaging in a two-way relationship. As we enter into this relationship, we will be transformed. In this act of transformation, certain questions emerge. What happens to us, and the world, when we do not try to build it up as fast as possible? What happens when we do? Is there such a thing as technological walking, skipping, strolling, and meandering, as well as running, and how do our experience and treatment of our selves and surroundings differ in each of these modes?

In this article, I will offer a relational theory of technology, one that begins to recognize fully the mutual influence of humans and their inventions. The implications of such a theory will be examined for two areas, one that already exists and is well established (health psychology), and one that—surprisingly enough given its import—is only in its infancy: the psychology of information technology. We will also see that honoring the mutual influence between humans and their creations involves far more than the necessary move to sustainable or appropriate technology. It requires a shift from technological progress to technological wisdom.

The Illusion of Neutrality

Physics, ecology, and the various religious and wisdom traditions of the world all tell us that we are interdependent, that we inhabit a web of existence in which our actions ripple out in multiple directions, only to reverberate back to us over time as complex configurations that can never be fully anticipated. To deny these interconnections is both the utmost arrogance and the sheerest folly, as denial leads to delusions of full autonomy and total control, which in turn result in violence and suffering. According to ecofeminists, deep ecologists, and others, our ignorance of interdependence is the spiritual and psychological root of the current planetary ecological trauma.

Although it is in the nature of things to be embedded in complex relationships, we do not treat the things we make from nature as if that were true. Instead we say that our devices, machines, and products are “neutral,” meaning that only their use by us determines their impact and value. This claim describes a one-way relationship of complete human control over technology. Our inventions simply lay there, inert, passive, innocent, exerting no intrinsic pull or push of their own. They have somehow escaped the web of interconnection in which everything influences everything.

On one level, this makes perfect sense. Who wants a tool that bites back or heads off in unwanted directions? The ideal technology is a total slave. To the extent that it is not, that it fails to translate human will into reality, or breaks down, or demands undue maintenance, it is flawed.

The assumed neutrality of technology accounts for why, until quite recently, so little research has been done on the psychology of technology, despite the staggering influence of modern inventions. With no intrinsic influence of its own, the built world is assumed simply to reflect human psychology. It provides an elaborate stage for our personal and social dramas. But the stage itself remains a passive backdrop.

The neutrality of technology is essential to the ideal of technological progress. This ideal can be understood as a utopian vision in which humanity attains paradise by controlling nature through technology (see Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature). For this vision to be complete, nature has to be neutralized, it has to be rendered powerless and fully manipulable. Nature must also be ethically neutral, having no inherent rights or worth of its own so that humans can do what they will with the land yet remain morally upright.

For the vision of progress to hold true, technology must similarly be neutral. If it is not, if our machines change us in ways we cannot fully anticipate or control, then paradise cannot be constructed. Technology will keep pulling us in directions we did not intend or desire. And certainly technology must be ethically neutral, having no intrinsic pull of its own that moves us in directions we consider either morally desirable or repugnant.

The question of neutrality can be subtle, for technology generates temptation, and temptation is a form of influence. Even when we choose, say, to turn off our cell phone most of us still have to cope with the urge to check for messages. To resist the temptation is to interact with the intrinsic pull of the device. That is why in the gun control debate it is incorrect to assert that guns kill people and equally misleading to claim that people kill people. It is people with guns who kill people. The transaction of the individual and the weapon is at the center of this lethal process—and the gun is far from neutral.

In today’s society, exceptions to the assumption of neutrality do exist, particularly when the inherent disadvantages are obvious and severe. This is the case when the FDA determines that a drug’s “side effects” are unacceptable. For many, the intrinsic dangers of nuclear power and genetically modified organisms justify a ban. And for reasons not clear to me, since the disadvantages are often not lethal or extremely harmful, architecture is also an area where the inherent pull of the built world is readily recognized.

Thus, throughout history our dwellings have been constructed with an eye to how they move us emotionally, spiritually, and aesthetically, a set of requirements that go far beyond sheer practicality. The Taj Mahal provides a compelling example. Although cultural forces and personal differences may mold individual reactions to the marble mausoleum, it is still true that millions of people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe respond with awe and appreciation to the spectacular edifice. Are we prepared to say that the building’s inherent properties do not contribute to this nearly universal resonance?

Critiques of Technological Neutrality

The belief in technological neutrality has, of course, been challenged elsewhere, often on a social and political basis. Although my focus here is primarily psychological, these critiques are worth briefly reviewing, for they provide a sense of the scope of the illusion of neutrality.

In Hand’s End, philosopher David Rothenberg draws our attention to how technology pulls for the creation of yet more technology:

A tool realizes a human inventor’s intention and the realization of this technique suggests new intention. Those who use the tool begin with their own intentions, and the more they accept the technology, the more their desires are changed. The technique alters its user’s grasp on the world.

Technology, notes Rothenberg, pleases us and, in so doing, seduces us down its own path. It begets more of itself through us. First the phone, then the car, then the car phone, and our concepts of communication, privacy, and travel are fundamentally altered. Rothenberg concludes:

The tool solves a problem, and then creates new and thornier issues not dreamable before. Technology, unlike science, does not even claim to reveal larger truths about what exists, but hints at more ways for humanity to change the world.

Moreover, no technology is born in a vacuum. There is always a context—social, political, economic, cultural—and it is naive to believe that the tool can be wholly extracted from its origins and applied to an unrelated situation without significantly altering that context. In In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander uses nuclear energy to illustrate this point:

Because it is so expensive and so dangerous, nuclear energy must be under the direct control of centralized financial, governmental, and military institutions. A nuclear power plant is not something that a few neighbors can get together and build … so if some future society, tiring of the present path, should determine to move away from a centralized technological society and toward, say, an agrarian society, it would be impossible. The technological elite would need to remain, if only to deal with the various wastes left behind. So it is fair to say that nuclear power inherently steers society toward greater political and financial centralization, and greater militarization.

But society’s controlling institutions do not wish to advertise the fact that so many technologies—cars, CAT scans, computers—require large institutions and centralized power to produce and maintain them. Instead, the public emphasis is always on the advantages that the latest product will confer on the individual. Mander writes:

The idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral, since it blinds us to the ultimate direction in which we are heading and directly serves the promoters of the centralized technological pathway.

Technologies change the worlds into which they are introduced. Reality is transformed as each new wave of innovation takes hold. Neil Postman, in Technopoly, explains:

New technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of the world-view. This competition is implicit once we acknowledge that a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competitions can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool-the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.

This collision in worldviews is dramatically illustrated when television is introduced into a culture previously untouched by it. In Ancient Futures, Helena Norberg-Hodge describes how this process unfolds in a Buddhist village in Ladakh, a sparsely populated region of India. The transformation begins almost at once. Irrespective of the content of the TV shows, the medium is inherently hypnotic. Family gatherings at night, a time when elders traditionally pass along wisdom and knowledge in the form of myths and stories, are suddenly far less interactive. People’s gaze is fixed on the TV rather than each other. Moreover, the stories told on the screen have an intrinsic quality that differs from the ambiance created by the live spoken word, the crackle of a nearby fire, the well-known gestures of an elder. Remoteness creeps in, as does an emphasis on vision and sound over touch, smell, and the immediacy of place. These changes would ensue even if the traditional cultures were to produce the TV shows for, irrespective of a show’s content, the very act of watching TV powerfully alters the viewer’s experience. In this way, television homogenizes experience. It alters any context into which it is introduced to become more like the urban-industrial context from which it arose.

In fact, technology has so altered the modern context that there is now a general belief that only through technological progress will we solve humanity’s most profound and pressing problems. Postman calls a culture steeped in such a utopian vision a “technopoly”:

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technological progress is humanity’s supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved.

The patterns being described here are pervasive and deep. Rothenberg alerts us to technology begetting technology, pulling its builders ever more deeply into an artificial world, mesmerizing society with its inner logic and workings. Mander brings attention to the centralization of power inherent in modern technology, a tendency that is denied by those who most benefit from it and instead touted as the empowerment of the individual. Postman sees new technologies reshaping worldviews, until a worldview emerges that deifies technology. This is not neutrality.

Stress-Inducing Technology

Neutrality has a long, honored history within psychology. Freud and his followers saw the therapist as a blank slate, an unbiased professional who could serve as a mirror to the projections, wishes, fears, and hopes of the patient. The analyst was to remove her or his own desires, impulses, and neurotic conflicts from the therapy relationship, remaining an objective observer, unaffected by the patient’s love, hate, or indifference.

"Engaging with the machines renders us impatient with the old ways," Kanner writes. "Slower rhythms are abandoned and devalued." Credit: Creative Commons/Clyde Bentley.

Just as with the idea of clinical neutrality, technological neutrality is an expression of the rational, objective, scientific ideal that dominates modern society. Moreover, it arises almost any time psychology addresses the built world. I would like to illustrate this by considering two areas in particular. The first is health psychology, which for the last several decades has been one of psychology’s fastest growing fields. The other is our relationship to the Internet, the most popular and influential of modern inventions. In both instances, we come to vastly different conclusions depending on whether we assume neutrality or explore the sway of our creations over us.

I do not own a cell phone. For many years I held out on using email until it became nearly impossible to function without it. Each time I opt out of participating in the newest phase of technological progress I have to take time with colleagues and friends to determine the best way to communicate without using the latest devices. Annoying as these negotiations sometimes are, they’ve been worth it, for the pace of my life has been slower than if I owned these recent inventions.

Which is my point. New communication technology, precisely because it is more efficient, exerts a pressure on its user to do more in a shorter period of time. In our business and personal lives, we rapidly gear up for each new communications device, as it cycles from novelty to luxury to convenience to necessity, until its efficiency becomes our own. A major, inherent pull of information technology is that our lives speed up.

Each time we communicate more efficiently, the temptation to do so grows. Each time we transmit information in seconds rather than days, the convenience, competitive advantage, and sense of control we gain invite us to do so again. Engaging with the machines renders us impatient with the old ways. Slower rhythms are abandoned and devalued. Having to wait becomes a sign of inferiority, a type of humiliation. As soon as speed becomes an advantage, not having it becomes a disadvantage.

These observations bring up a fascinating question: Could we design communication devices that encourage a variety of paces, ones more consistent with our biorhythms and those of the natural world, to which we are genetically attuned? Would such a world be emotionally and physically healthier?

In my graduate years, I was involved in creating the Daily Hassles Scale. The most frequent hassles reported were “too many responsibilities” and “not enough time,” attesting to what we referred to as “the stress of modern life.” Yet in our many discussions of this phenomenon we never mentioned the machines that lay humming away behind the scenes. We were well ensconced in the illusion of neutrality, believing people were choosing to use their new, efficient gadgets in service of a competitive, high-pressured lifestyle. They could opt to use the inventions in a more leisurely manner, or less frequently, but it was all a matter of choice. The technology, we assumed, permitted the stress of modern life but did not encourage it.

For many years I worked as a psychotherapist in Silicon Valley, the high-tech center of the world. Many of my clients were so busy that we constantly struggled to maintain a once-a-week meeting schedule. They put in twelve-to-fourteen-hour days in a chronic mode of semi-crisis, attempting to meet one deadline after another. Exhilarating and cutting-edge as their work was, it was also apparent to them that they were paying a steep price in terms of their relationships, health, and peace of mind.

Ironically, even as their lives sped up, my clients were designing and acquiring the latest “time-saving” devices. Jet lagged, they yearned for faster airplanes. Up all night and early in the morning to catch the Japanese and European business days at their inception, they touted the virtues of global communication. Devoted to technology, they continually discounted their own experience with it.

In a nutshell, information technology causes stress. When people text, instant message, and email, they are subject to a powerful pressure emanating from the equipment to be more efficient, to become more like the machine. Smart phones, iPads, and Facebook all contribute to a Type A environment that takes active effort and awareness to resist. Electronic communication is as much a reason for the deadly pace of our lives as it is a result of it.

By moving health psychology beyond the illusion of neutrality, the focus of the field shifts radically to include a careful scrutiny of the psychological environment created by modern technology. New questions appear. Perhaps the rise in cancer, heart disease, and other such illnesses of our times cannot be reversed until we engage less with stress-inducing technology. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the movement in medicine toward sophisticated diagnostic apparatus and procedures that remove doctors even further from their patients. Perhaps a very challenging question needs to be asked: Given the accelerating stress of our current lives, are these machines worth it?

(Inter)Net Losses

Computers in particular and information technology in general are the most potent symbols of technological progress. In them are invested the dreams and hopes of the future. Many consider them the greatest manifestations to date of human intelligence and technological skill. For these reasons we are particularly attached to our screens and readily deride or dismiss their critics. Bolstered by an enormous media onslaught of support, information technology is nearly sacred.

Further, most of us have nary a clue as to how iPods, cell phones, and digital cameras work. We certainly cannot build or repair them. Instead, purchasing the latest devices allows us to identify with and in some way participate in each impressive wave of technological creativity. Possession makes us feel powerful and hip. Ownership has a potent symbolic value that extends far beyond the actual features, say, of the newest smartphone, no matter how many apps we download.

In this section, I wish to speak about the downside of information technology, especially on the psychological level, but even more about the emotional blocks we have against looking at them skeptically. Many of the claimed advantages have concomitant disadvantages, but rarely do we line up the benefits and the drawbacks, the net gains and losses, and seriously examine the whole enterprise.

One of the challenges of a relational approach to technology is becoming skilled at identifying the myriad inherent influences of each innovation. The same device or product can pull us in quite different, even opposite, directions. Hiking boots may invite us to enter the woods, at the same time luring us away from toughening the soles of our feet so we can enjoy walking barefoot in the dirt. Indeed, each technology exerts a unique set of influences on us, both desirable and undesirable. That is why it is never enough to examine only the advantages of a given innovation, no matter how appealing they may be.

Yet such a one-sided approach is typical of our analysis of information technology. This technology is supposed to grant us unprecedented power, to unleash untold creativity, to bring us all closer. With so much at stake, an unflinching look at these inventions seems prudent.

On the psychological level, information technology fosters the replacement of face-to-face contact with electronically mediated interactions. The enormity of this shift, which at times can be quite subtle, and which potentially alters our very concept of relationship, has not been adequately addressed.

Electronic communication is beginning to be experienced by many as an acceptable substitute for the physical presence of other people and for immediate engagement with one’s human and natural community. In education, we see this happening when no formal distinction is made between time spent learning on the computer and time spent learning from a human instructor. The warmth, personal understanding, and love of knowledge conveyed by a good classroom teacher are treated as interchangeable with on-line programmed lessons. Spontaneous discussions among a relatively small number of students are considered pedagogically identical to emailed questions to on-screen experts who live in different parts of the country or world and lecture to many thousands of students at once.

Educators appear to be quickly abandoning the notion that any personal relationship is necessary to learning, or learning how to think well, or learning how to apply knowledge in an ethical and compassionate manner. This seems to be the implicit assumption of supporters of MOOCs (massive open online courses), whether they see the widespread adoption of such courses as the democratization of academia—since they can be made cheaply available to large number of students—or simply as a terrific business opportunity. The solution to exorbitant higher education costs is not a technological fix that tears apart the very fabric of the teacher-student relationship and which itself is highly susceptible to commercial exploitation. The solution is to make higher education free, as we have done so successfully with kindergarten through high school.

One way to make the virtual world an acceptable substitute for the rest of reality is to romanticize the abilities of computers, which we do through the language we use to describe them. A number of authors have noted that computers do not think or have intuitions. Yet we refer to them routinely as smart or in terms of artificial intelligence. Similarly, computers are not relational—they do not bond, love, or hate. But we describe them as “interactive,” a word with strong relational connotations. Through our language, we reduce ourselves and elevate them.

People do develop some forms of meaningful relationships over the Internet. But these are quite distinct from the full-bodied ties that develop in functional families and communities. Computers numb us to the differences between virtual and real life, between cyberspace and a real place with trees and fungus and ancestors in the ground. In our adoration of these machines, and encouraged by all the media hype, we shut down the parts of ourselves sensitive to these differences.

As we use computers, it is easy to forget that they do not truly think or have creative intuitions. Instead, they calculate, perform logical operations, and follow certain algorithms or mathematical rules. In using them, we develop the cognitive skills best suited for those activities and neglect those capacities that are less well matched. We mold ourselves to the machine.

In a similar fashion, texting, e-mail and other forms of electronic communication are extraordinarily narrow. We cannot touch, smell, or directly sense the presence of others. No physical context exists beyond a lit screen. With texting, instant messaging, and other keyboard-based communication, the slower pace of exchange means spontaneity is more difficult than with the spoken word. Thus, we need to take all the splendid ways we have of connecting and cram them into these relatively barren procedures. Moreover, the more time we are immersed in an electronic medium, the easier it is to forget its limitations and instead come to believe that we are fully present. This confusion of the virtual and the real is one of the inherent qualities of information technology. As we become more interactive, we become less relational.

Technology-Tethered Teens

New forms of communication technology, of course, are particularly attractive to teenagers, for they fulfill the adolescent dream of instant access to their friends without adult supervision. Yet, as Sherry Turkle documents in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, adolescents are now reporting serious drawbacks to the heavy use of texting, instant messaging, Facebook, and the like. In Turkle’s interviews, teens describe feeling a constant pressure to respond quickly to any message, to always be “on.” They can’t ignore a text or message without risking upsetting their friends, who expect prompt replies. Turkel describes these young people as being “tethered.”

Tethered teenagers report having very little privacy. Many have gotten into the habit of instantly reporting any significant event or feeling to their peers. As a result, they fail to develop the capacity to be comfortably alone and to form a strong, independent sense of self from which to connect with others.

Although online communication appears spontaneous, in fact adolescents carefully craft the image they present to the world. They devote much time and energy to tweaking their messages in order to put their best face forward. Turkle acknowledges that conflicts around self-presentation are not new to teenagers but “what is new is living them out in public, sharing every mistake and false step.”

The availability of instant communication encourages continuous stimulation, even multi-tasking. This is another one of information technology’s inherent pulls. Teenagers now routinely augment homework with Facebook, online shopping and games, blogging, and a host of other similar activities. Yet, research indicates that multi-taskers don’t perform as well on any of their individual tasks as “single-taskers” do. In fact, the evidence indicates that multi-tasking actually interferes with learning.

Yet another problem is the constant deluge of information within which young people operate. Any message they send has to compete with many other sources of stimulation, which means it could easily get lost in the electronic shuffle.

Meanwhile, what are their parents doing? The same thing. Teenagers now complain about parental unavailability even when adults are physically present, since their parents spend large amounts of time texting or phoning. Ironically, adolescents also bemoan the loss of independence they experience because their parents can text or phone them any time, any place.

Some members of the current generation, Turkle notes,

live more than half their waking hours in virtual places. But they also talk wistfully about letters, face-to-face meetings, and the privacy of the pay phone. Tethered selves, they try to conjure a future different from the one they see coming by building on a past they never knew. In it, they have time alone, with nature, with each other, and with their families.

We could argue that these recent developments are simply a matter of teenagers choosing to use the Internet in unhealthy ways. As adults, we need to guide them (somehow) to a more reasonable approach. But the seductiveness of instant communication is a major feature of every electronic device under consideration here. Each is designed specifically to make immediate access as easy as possible. It should come as no surprise that the temptation to exploit this quality is a powerful inherent pull of the technology.

Adults, of course, are also struggling with many of the pitfalls outlined above. Neuroscientists are just beginning to address how attention, memory, and learning suffer when our digitally over-stimulated brains don’t have time to rest and recharge. In a New York Times article titled “Out of Door and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,” Matt Richtel quotes psychologist David Strayer, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Utah, as describing attention as the brain’s “holy grail,” noting, “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything that you let in, everything that you remember and forget, depends on it.” Too much digital stimulation, he suggests, fatigues the brain, which in turn can “take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.” The technology that has come to symbolize the peak of human intelligence could be dumbing us down.

Internet Activism Revisited

One way to remain in denial about the drawbacks of new technologies is to create a long list of the benefits and then cloak these advantages in utopian garb. This was done with radio and television, which were initially hyped as inventions that would bring the world together in harmony and peace. Now this starry-eyed promise has been transferred to information technology.

A recent example of such idealization is the use of social media and cell phones in the Egyptian uprising of 2011. The role of information technology in organizing the rebellion is seen be many, as the New York Times article “Spring Awakening: How An Egyptian Revolution Began on Facebook” described it, as the beginning of a “borderless movement that is set to continually disrupt powerful institutions, be they corporate enterprises or political regimes.”

Before crowning the Internet the grand tool of liberation, however, we need to account for the fact that computers pull for centralized power, increasing far more the influence of governments, the military, and transnational corporations than they cumulatively benefit individuals and small groups. Three questions are particularly relevant here. First, how much has the Egyptian government used the Internet to organize and implement decades of oppression? Second, how much has the Internet been used globally by governments and corporations to further oppressive policies, a question of particular relevance given recent revelations of pervasive U.S./corporate spying on citizens around the world. Third, do we truly believe that governments won’t “catch up” to techniques used in the Arab Spring and in the future shut down such efforts?

I anticipate that the answers to these questions will show that the Internet centralizes power more than it topples it. It may be necessary to use social media and cell phones to have a fighting chance against large institutions that employ the same technology on a far more massive scale, but that does not justify the glorification of these forms communication.


There is a fierce resistance in many of us to considering even the possibility that information technology could do more harm than good. This resistance is a major concern of a relational theory of technology. As I have been suggesting, the cultural taboo against challenging technological progress cuts us off from our own experience. Instead of tolerating and exploring any discomfort we encounter with a new invention, we are far more likely to tell ourselves to adapt. When we automatically dismiss our doubts as old-fashioned we fail to distinguish between legitimate reactions to the harmful effects of technology and anxiety that arises simply because something is new and unfamiliar.

When I first wrote the precursor to this article in 1998, a friend of mine had recently brought her computer home after losing a job. The heightened activity level that it generated ruined the peaceful ambience of her small house. Her response, however, was to feel there was something wrong with her for reacting as she did. Back then, even the U. S. Senate balked at introducing laptop computers into its chambers. The senators feared that the sounds of clicking machines and the enticement of instantly available data would distract members from attending to live speeches and participating in ongoing debates. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article in September 1997, they also believed that the presence of computers would compromise the distinguished atmosphere of the proceedings. In 2013, such concerns seem quaint.

Such reactions to new technology, I suspect, are far more common than we realize, although we quickly banish them from consciousness. My friend and the senators were experiencing a healthy aversion to the intrusiveness of information technology, although we have come to experience its interference with the flow of life as normal. More generally, such negative responses are an important part of our capacity to evaluate technology.

When the Internet was first built, our society was capable of anticipating all of the problems outlined above—and a technologically wise society certainly would have done so. Based on such an analysis we might have modified the Internet before introducing it (while retaining the benefits as much as possible), limited its use once it was introduced, and monitored from the start its harmful effects. We might have decided against introducing the Internet at all.

Further, in making such decisions a peculiar quality of inventions needs to be taken into account. Once the increased convenience, power, and control of a new technology are directly experienced, and society has reorganizes itself accordingly, it is exceedingly difficult to reverse course. The “genie out of the bottle” factor is one more reason to proceed cautiously.

A Multitude of Technological Pathways

One of the key assumptions of technological progress is that advancement is linear. This simplistic model provides three choices: move forward, stand still, or regress, perhaps back to the Stone Age. The possibility that many technological pathways exist, each leading to a unique set of sophisticated inventions, does not enter the equation. The linear model also excludes the impact of culture, history, economic forces, and the like in determining which technological pathway a society follows.

Let us escape these confines for a moment by imagining we’re back in the 1940s when modern computer technology was first emerging, but living in a society far less ruled by the mind-body split than ours. In this incarnation we value emotions (body) as highly as cognitions (mind). As a result, the first modern machines designed to imitate human intelligence are built to both feel and think, however primitively. Call them “emputers,” since they emote and compute. Emputers are built to include chemical processes as well as electronic transmissions, thereby more closely paralleling the evolution of the brain than computers. They are programmed for basic pleasure and pain (like/dislike) reactions as well as “on” and “off” decisions. Over the next seven decades they take their world in a strikingly different direction than purely logical computers have taken ours.

What direction might this be? Here’s a very partial answer. In 2013, computers can defeat chess masters but cannot produce a single piece of good, let alone great, music, art, or literature. As is well known, high quality art reflects and expresses our deepest passions, fears, joys, and turmoil. Since emputers have feelings, they can begin to approximate these experiences more effectively than computers, which are left out in the cold of strict logic. Of the two types of machines, emputers could very well be the more creative.

But back to the present-day world, where the Internet is ubiquitous and, in the short term, nearly unavoidable. For many, not using it would be professional or financial suicide. Under such circumstances we can cultivate a kind of technological mindfulness and stay aware of the drastic impact that information technology is having on us collectively and individually. I have seen such awareness among many environmental activists in regard to cars. Those who own automobiles use them sparingly, buy used ones that they keep in good repair, and take public transportation whenever feasible. They are also comfortable with the idea that the personal car may eventually be relinquished, as cities are redesigned, people live close to work, and so on. They certainly don’t idolize the car as the technology of liberation. A similar approach to computers seems appropriate.

The Hands of the Spirit

Jeannette Armstrong is co-founder and director of the En’owkin School of International Writing, the first accredited Canadian writing school operated solely by and for Aboriginal people. In “Keepers of the Earth” in Ecopsychology, she shares the technological wisdom of her people, the Okanagan:

We are tiny and unknowledgeable in our individual selves, it is the whole-Earth part of us that contains immense knowledge. Over the generations of human life, we have come to discern small parts of that knowledge, and humans house this internally. The way we act in our human capacity has significant effect on the Earth because it is said that we are the hands of the spirit, in that we can fashion Earth pieces with that knowledge and therefore transform the Earth. It is our most powerful potential, and so we are told that we are responsible for the Earth. We are keepers of the Earth because we are Earth. We are old Earth.

This passage, as I have come to understand it, contains the essence of technological wisdom. Foremost, it speaks about the greater purpose of technology, providing a vision in which humanity, through its inventions, joins the Earth as the planet remolds itself. But our species participates in this mysterious unfolding in a particular manner. It seeks guidance from its world as to how to proceed. It acts as the hands of the spirit. (For those of a more atheistic bent, we could say our species acts from an ethical obligation to live in harmony with the planet, which requires continually attending to technology’s impact on nature to know if we are behaving honorably.)

According to Armstrong, our role in the planetary scheme of things has been revealed to us slowly. Over the generations, we have come to discern small parts of the greater picture. This knowledge has been acquired not just through thought, observations, logic, and experimentation—although we have learned much that way—but by listening to the “whole-Earth part of us.” In modern psychological parlance, we might speak of opening to intuition, the collective or ecological unconscious, or the transpersonal realm. Our technological potential is unfulfilled, and unfulfillable, when it is divorced from the spirit of the Earth.

Thus, the value of any technology is only partially determined by the security, comfort, and convenience it confers. We need also to know if it draws us closer to the land, to each other, and to the cosmos. These relational, political, and spiritual/ethical dimensions are always present in our inventions and are part of their inherent pull.

A significant part of this dialogue is the immediate quality of experience we have as we interact with our machines. Such exchanges cannot always be pleasant, of course, but each technology has its own look, feel, and smell, and otherwise engages our senses. It also affects our awareness of our bodies and physical surroundings—compare riding a bicycle to driving a car.

Another part of the dialogue is the pace of innovation itself, which includes the amount of time necessary to evaluate a new invention. In the case of life-altering technologies, it may take decades or even generations of observation and small-scale experimentation before we are prepared to move forward. Our species adapts quickly to change in some ways but more slowly in others. We can change our mind in an instant and acclimate to new conditions, even difficult ones, in a matter of months or a few years. However, the effects of other shifts, such as dietary ones, may not show up for decades while the full ramifications of cultural transformations, such as the scientific revolution, may not be evident for centuries. Our decisions regarding new technologies need to account for their short-term and long-term impact.

At present, much that we manufacture is, in a word, junk. As consumer society transforms into a technologically wise one, far fewer things will be made, allowing those items that remain to be of much higher quality and to be produced under considerably more favorable circumstances than the modern factory affords. People who work with wood, metal, or stone will know the local forests, caves, and mountains from which their materials come.

To move in this direction will require considerable technological creativity, integrating the old with the new, retaining all that we still value of the modern after we have come to understand far better how it molds us. This is not going back to Paleolithic modes of existence, but it is drawing on the well-established technological principles of indigenous cultures. Many of these cultures have invented successfully for thousands of years without demolishing their habitats.

Why Deal With This Now?

technology debate

The philosophy of "technological progress" has made it increasingly difficult to engage in a nuanced debate about what sort of relationship with technology would make our lives richer. Credit: Creative Commons/Scott McLeod.

When the opportunity arose to revise this fifteen-year-old article, I had to ask myself if it was worth the effort. Aren’t there more pressing issues than our relationship to our inventions?

As I see it, the monumental changes many envision as necessary to address the ecological crisis cannot be accomplished unless we attend to the ubiquitous influence of our machines. Let’s say, for instance, that we build a set of interlocking local economies capable of meeting most of our material needs through local production, and augmented by regional, national, and international services as needed. Within such an overarching structure, will we continue the current practice of making new, improved inventions to replace the old at an ever-accelerating rate? Even if our population plummets to 1 billion, or 500 million, do we replace our computers, cell phones, and other devices every year with better ones?

More broadly, it is entirely possible that much of modern technology moves us toward centralized power, alienation from our body, and a preference for virtual reality over physical reality. If this is the case, we dare not ignore such powerful roadblocks to a sound ecological existence.

Our species is at a technological crux, a moment when it needs to examine its ability to create as never before. Collectively, we are having a manic-depressive reaction to our inventions. On the one hand, we can but marvel with giddy anticipation as scientific and technical wizards spin out one stunning innovation after another. On the other, we are horrified with disbelief as we witness these same innovations destroying complex life on the planet. Obviously, we need to find a more even keel, an internal equilibrium in which we can fully absorb all the wonders and dangers of each invention and then decide, with full use of our rational faculties, if the gains are worth the losses. This would be the beginning of technological wisdom.

(This is a substantially revised and updated version of an article that first appeared in Revision, 20 (4), Spring 1998, pp. 45-53.)


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