Technology makes change possible, humans make it happen

We often expect too much of technology. (Or perhaps blame technology too much, depending on our particular perspective.) We think technology alone can change the world (or technology changes us in spite of ourselves). Technology consists of tools. Some really amazing tools, but nonetheless simply tools. Change requires human agency. In order for tools (technology) to create change, some human agent somewhere must necessarily want change to happen.

Fire was technology which had existed before humans existed. Humans and fire existed together for thousands of years. Fire did not create change in the course of human civilization, however, until humans discovered the problems it could solve and the new things it could create.

Amish communities are an excellent example of the idea that technology cannot create change unless humans want the change to occur. It is widely believed that Amish communities avoid technology all together. This, however, is not quite accurate. Instead, Amish communities carefully consider the adoption of technology before deciding if it will or will not be allowed within their community. The consideration of the technology occurs when someone within the community (a human agent) wants a change. For example, suppose Ben is a carpenter. He has been using traditional Amish hand-tools per the requirements of his Ordnung. Over time, he discovers that he is no longer able to support his family in this manner because he is competing with other non-Amish carpenters who are using electricity and power tools. He would bring the possibility of using electricity and power tools to to the community for consideration. As a group, they would weigh the pros and cons of allowing this technology into the community. If they ultimately decided that using this technology would not cause harm to the community and would not impinge on their underlying beliefs, then they would allow the technology to be used by the community. If, however, they decided the technology had large potential to damage the community or directly conflicted with their core beliefs, then they would not allow the technology. The technology exists sometimes for centuries, but until a human agent desires a change, the technology has no impact within the Amish community. To read more about the Amish approach to Technology see Technologist talks about Amish approach to technology , NPR story on Amish approach to technologyInterview with an MIT student who lived a year with the Amish

We may be impacted by change which we did not want, but somebody somewhere wanted the change. When an individual decided to adopt cellphones as a personal tool, they most likely had a change they wanted to happen — personally it was to be able to stay connected with my family even though I was away from the house a great deal. This was a change I wanted and the new technology made it possible for me make the change. My employer also wanted to be able to reach me more easily and consistently. Now with my cellphone they can reach me at all hours including when I am on vacation. This was not the change I had desired when I adopted cellphones, but it was a change my employer (a human agent) had desired.

Charitable groups within the developed world have embraced the idea that making cell phone technology available in the developing world will radically change the course of history. Perhaps it will — there have been examples of how it has changed lives (Overview of impact from Columbia University , Detailed look at the Economic Impact in India)

What we sometimes forget is that the change happens because the people who encounter the technology want change and know how the technology can create that change for them. If change is not desired or not recognized as possible, then the technology will do nothing to help. Empowering women was one of the main goals of non-profits working to make cell phones accessible in developing worlds, but it has not gone as expected. (NPR article , charitable group report )

Saying that we can empower women simply by giving them cellphones is equivalent to walking into your local Burger King, handing the boy behind the counter a box of spray paint cans and saying “Now go be a street artist.” His reply will most likely be a startled, “But I don’t want to be an street artist!” (complete with a bit of a teenage whine.) Or perhaps, “Being a street artist will get me in trouble!” The story, however, is entirely different if the boy behind the counter has wanted to be a street artist and simply needed the necessary supplies to create the mural he has designed in his head. From his set of supplies, he might even discover a myriad of other ways to change his life. Again, however, it is the boy (the human agent) who wants the change before the technology can make any change happen.
Which isn’t to say women in developing countries do not want to be empowered, but perhaps they prefer a peaceful household or do not recognize a need for empowerment (afterall, we saw the same thing in the US Women’s Suffrage movement a century ago). Perhaps they simply do not yet recognize how the cell phone can create positive change in their lives.

Technology makes change possible. Humans decide if, when and how that change will occur.

At least until Artificial Intelligence becomes a viable option….


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