Essays on Technology and Culture

The True Value of Technology

Technology is often viewed as a means to an end. If you ask an ordinary person what a computer is for, they might not be able to tell you, but looking at how an ordinary person uses a computer tells you everything. It’s a means to entertainment: playing computer games, or watching cat videos on YouTube. It’s a means to communicate, with status messages on Facebook, emails of photos to family members, or—if they’re really up on things—video calls to loved ones too far away to see in person. Come tax time, a computer is an accountant. The technology is merely a tool.

A tool is anything that allows us to accomplish a task with less time or effort than it would take us to do without it. A spear is an easier way to hunt an animal than using our bare hands. A car lets us travel faster, and in more comfort than by using our feet. A computer allows us to solve math problems faster than own brains, pencil, and paper—and fundamentally, everything is a math problem if you look at it the right way. [1]

Those of a certain bent, however, see technology as a thing unto itself—something that they can bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate to serve our own ends. These are the people who make the software that makes a computer so useful for the ordinary people, creating the games, the tax preparation software, the e-mail applications, the Facebooks, and the YouTubes that make owning a computer worthwhile for a large and ever-growing segment of the population.

Every so often, one of those ordinary people becomes fascinated by more than what they can do with the technology. They want to know how the technology works. They seek to learn, they seek to understand, and then they seek to control it and make it work for themselves. It’s through this process that the true value of technology in any form is unlocked. We go from being the beneficiary of a tool to a wielder of a tool, and from a wielder of a tool to creating new tools, whereby the process begins again with a new generation.

Not everyone is going to program, design, build or engineer. To assume so greatly underestimates both the potential applications of technology, and the willingness of the average person to want to control things. A mistake technophiles make is to assume that everybody, in some way, is like them, or can become like them. The person who seeks to control technology does so because they are wired to want it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a beneficiary of technology without control, and we should acknowledge that. The ones who want to bend technology to their will, to make and remake the tools, end up benefiting the rest of us.