Essays on Technology and Culture

Control Pays Off

The real dividends of technology are only paid out to those who know how to control it. I don’t just mean this financially, though web programmers are in a good place to make a lot of money. Control of technology pays off in less obvious ways. The NSA and CIA know how to control technology—it’s how they’ve been able to peek into our digital lives for the past several years. They know more about how to use technology than the people who are elected to oversee how they use it. That is a dangerous combination.

For ordinary people, however, controlling technology allows us to bend it to our will. Treating our devices as the tools they are prevents us from being tools of our devices. Controlling technology doesn’t mean “owning the full stack,” or being Richard Stallman and only using free, open-source software and hardware. It just means knowing the limitation of the technology, and the dangers. It means knowing where and when to rely on the tool, and where and when to rely on yourself. Doing this takes time, and a willingness to learn. Not everyone has that.

It worries me when people gush over the latest new gadget without thinking about how it fits in to the bigger picture of both how we use technology, and how we control technology. Look at smartwatches. The biggest use case anyone can seem to come up with is a “second screen” for your smartphone. A smartwatch is just something to show you notifications so you know whether or not to take your phone out of your pocket. Wouldn’t it make more sense to rethink how our phones decide to notify us, when, and why? That way, we know that when our phone buzzes, it’s automatically something worth taking it out for.

Of course, that’s not going to sell another $249 device to an audience of gadget-hungry nerds. It’s easier for a technology company to feed the human craving for novelty, rather than come up with a real solution to a real problem. Occasionally, they’ll manage to do both, but the hits are few and far between. Besides, we already have the power to solve the problem in the palms of our hands. No matter the device you own, it’s possible to make it shut up, or set it to only bug you about the things you think are important. Unfortunately, this is a power-user move.

Those of us who live in and of the world of technology, who have identified the problem, need to find real solutions for the real people who are being overwhelmed. We should be teaching people how to take control of their technology. So much technology education in schools is still about how to use Microsoft Office, and not much else. There’s a full toolbox at their disposal, and all we’re teaching the average person is how to swing a hammer. If Facebook can make it easy for an ordinary person to give up all their personal information, we can make it easy for an ordinary person to understand what they’re giving up. It’s not easy for us to do it, nor was it easy for Facebook, but it can be done.

Too many of the companies we depend on build a financial livelihood making it harder for us to be in control. Developers and technology companies should make it easier for their customers to take control of their technology. Companies that intentionally make it harder for us to control our devices should be taken to task for it. Whether it’s hardware manufacturers capitulating to carriers demands to load crapware , or Apple’s lack of inter-app communication, the pushback has to be made. More importantly, it has to come from more than just the technological elite. If we can bring ordinary people on our side, make them understand, and make them care about the tools they use and the potential they carry in their pockets, it can lead to a better technological world for all of us.