Those words, the celebratory motto of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, expressed a revealing truth that by today’s standards is shocking in its honesty.
The arguments over technology today never suggest that human conformity is part of the high-tech transaction. Personal “empowerment” is the buzzword from the technology merchants. Technology makes us more powerful and gives us greater personal freedom, the spiel goes.
BP, with its massive oil spill in the Gulf; Wall Street, with its devastating computer-generated “derivatives;” and the continuing assault on our personal privacy by Internet companies should have permanently nipped those ideas in the bud.
Sadly, most Americans are now feeling helpless, learning they have to play along to get along in this brave new world dominated by global networks and out-of-control corporations. In a society that lives and breathes on speeding fixes of “information,” we feel more disconnected than ever before.
In his 1991 book, In the Absence of the Sacred (Sierra Club Books), author Jerry Mander warned this would happen. He described how individual technologies would expand their impact, interlock and merge with one another. “Together, they are forming something new, almost as if they were living cells; they are becoming a single technical-economic web encircling the plant...,” Mander wrote. He called this phenomenon “megatechnology.”Mander put in stark terms what we are facing today. He offered insight into why Americans are so susceptible to the charms of new technology while failing to recognize the dangers that lurk beneath the surface.
In our culture, Mander notes, new technology comes only from a single source: the corporation. The one and only reason a corporation introduces a new technology is to make a profit. The marketing goal of the corporation is—by any means necessary—to persuade us to “conform” to their latest technology. Once we accept and embrace a new technology as part of our life, the corporation reaps the reward of immense wealth.
The new toys of the digital age are being presented as hip, sexy and glamorous. There are always good reasons to go along. Since it’s so obvious that technology makes our daily lives easier and more fun, we find easy justification to buy in. Why not accept it, use it and go with the flow?
What we often forget in the swirl of hype is that every technology is a two-edged sword. Mander notes that new technology is always introduced in its best light. All emphasis is on the benefits. During the sales pitch, the negative effects are hidden. Only after the technology becomes embedded in our daily lives do we begin to understand the tradeoffs we have made in embracing it. There is no better example than what's happening in the Gulf.
All this is a very deceptive business. Everyone can cite the benefits of certain technologies. We tend to take a narrow view and think of technology on a purely personal level. Only by adopting a wider view—one that encompasses an examination of how technology works as a whole—can we get an accurate assessment of the true impact a technology is having on our way of living.
When taking a wider view of technology it becomes clear that most of us are already surrounded by a tangled web of interrelated technologies that make up our living environment. We live and work in a manufactured bubble of air conditioned apartments, offices, malls, automobiles and airplanes. Urban dwellers move about on paved sidewalks and roadways, encountering “nature” only in landscaped parks. We are dependent on electric lights, telephones, computers and a myriad of appliances that are, in turn, all dependent on fossil fuels for energy.
We live inside technology. We exist in an artificial world totally created by humans and increasingly disconnected from all that is natural. Because of its physical comfort and illusions of security, humans easily adapt to this controlled environment. Unfortunately, once inside this artificial cocoon, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to accurately detect and assess the effects of technology on our world.
Those effects do exist because every technology has a bias and carries an inherent message. No technology is value-free. There are social and political implications inherent in the introduction of every new technology. New technologies change power arrangements and force conformity. After the introduction, there are always winners and losers.
Yet, saying “no” to new technology is a foreign idea to most Americans. Even public debate of the social implications of a new technology is rare in our culture. Few of us consider that we have the right to prevent the deployment of a new technology that might negatively affect our lives.
As Mander suggests in his book, the ability to question and evaluate new technology is an important survival skill. Only by moving beyond the commercial propaganda associated with new technology introductions can one begin to cut through the distortions and define the tradeoffs in accepting a new technology. It is important to identify and examine the social, political and environmental consequences of technologies currently being deployed throughout the world.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal on July 16, 1845: “Men have become the tools of their tools...” Only by beginning to question technology can we reverse the trend of conforming to it.(Photo credits: Top photo of the beach at Waveland, Mississippi by Sabrina Bradford. Bottom photo by Ellis Anderson)