We tend to see technology as a force for good. From the discovery of how to make fire through advances in agriculture, industry and leisure, technology has mostly served us well. So in an age when politics seems too exhausted to find solutions to the wicked problems we face, it’s natural that many of us turn to technology —or the technology we believe to be just over the horizon— in search of answers to our needs. Will our beloved smartphones just amuse us ever more effectively? Or do they hold the digital seeds that can save the world?
Only hindsight will tell us whether our faith in technological fixes turned out to be a springboard to another successful chapter in the human story, or if we were duped by our obsession with gadgets and devices. But it’s tempting to wonder. Climate change politics at a stalemate? Maybe there’s a techno fix. Poverty and disease in the developing world now endemic? Water getting scarce? Not enough caregivers for our tsunami of pensioners? Ditto. Maybe some tech-head will even come up with some fancy new political tools to fix our broken democracies.
There is nothing inherently wrong with looking to technological innovation for a way out of trouble. Perhaps geoengineering of the climate, properly applied, will tamp down the severe risks of a warming planet. Robotic care may indeed make our sunset years more comfortable. Technology has come through before.
But we can’t place blind faith in technological solutions just because it’s easier than changing our ways. Technology is agnostic in how it is applied (Hiroshima tells us that), and its effects on our social and political arrangements depend on how we choose to deploy it. That is the lesson from Edward Snowden’s revelations about state surveillance. There is nothing predetermined that says new technologies will save or destroy the middle class, or lead to greater or less inequality. If our near future really is to be one of diapers delivered by drones, self-driving cars and a climate of our own making, it’s up to us to ensure that technology truly is used as a force for good.