Is Technology Neutral?

The word “technology” refers to methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes. Examples are all around us. Whether you’re reading this question on a desktop, laptop, or a smartphone you are, of course, using technology.

Cameras are an example, from the early devices called daguerreotypes to today’s digital cameras. Are each of these devices neutral, their value only determined by their use? For example, cameras can be used positively or negatively.  You might capture a loved family portrait or stalk celebrities as an over-zealous paparazzi.

In addition, what about technology being used on a grander scale? For instance, the science of splitting the atom is used to produce electricity from nuclear reactors as well as to build potentially population-erasing bombs. Are these technologies neutral or do they have inherent value?

Simply asking if nuclear energy is “clean,” or do its waste stockpiles serve as a danger for current and countless future generations implies value, doesn’t it?

Do nuclear bombs make us less safe due to their destructive capacity? Or alternately, do they make us safer because of the deterrence their existence creates?

This debate is a long-standing one. Critics claim that technology is used/built for a reason — reasons that carry inherent positive or negative values — while the other side posits that it is simply a process or tool that derives value solely from its use by the user.

Where do you stand on this issue? Is technology neutral?

Related questions: Are science and religion compatible? What role does technology play in your life? What do you get out of social media?

What Role Does Technology Play In Your Life?

Technology has had a tremendous impact on our lives. It helps us to be more productive, to communicate with others, to produce goods faster and at lower cost, and to escape the hold of our planet’s gravity, among many other benefits. In just a few short centuries, life has drastically changed due to the technology we surround ourselves with.

But for all the advantages that our technology has, there are also many drawbacks.

Example #1: GPS

Let’s take Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). GPS keeps us from getting lost, and using it couldn’t be much simpler. Plug in an address, and follow the directions. Any decent GPS will get you to your destination, oftentimes routing around accidents, road construction, or other obstacles. We spend less time getting directions, fewer hassles trying to read maps, and best of all less time being lost!

However, as it turns out, there is an advantage to getting lost. It may be less efficient in the short term, but it helps us to actually learn our local geography. Studies have shown that people who rely on a GPS for navigation do not retain as much knowledge of the route and local landmarks as those who navigate the old-fashioned way. And the difference is not just a superficial one, as the areas of our brain that are used for navigation can be significantly underdeveloped by constant GPS use.

Example #2: Plastic

Or what about plastic? Plastic was introduced just a little more than a hundred years ago, but now it is totally ubiquitous. We wrap our food with it, we carry goods in bags made from it, and everything from toys to life-saving medical devices use or are mostly made from plastic. The reason it is so useful is because it is inexpensive to make, it is lightweight, and it can easily be molded into whatever shape we want.

What it doesn’t do, however, is break down into constituent elements. This means that the plastic that was used to wrap your head of cauliflower at the grocery store will be in the world for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Every plastic water bottle, every computer or music CD, every plastic toothbrush we throw out will sit in a landfill, intact, for much longer than our lifespans. Or worse yet, make its way to a stream or a river, and eventually to the ocean. There are large islands of plastic waste floating in our oceans, where it is sometimes consumed by sea life while still not breaking down.

Example #3: The smartphone

One last example: the smartphone. Introduced just over a decade ago, they have quickly been adopted throughout society and are now considered indispensable. Smartphone owners use them for just about every aspect of modern life: work, recreation, exercise, entertainment, and communication.

However, it is not at all clear what the long-term impact of the smartphone will be. Our attention is fractured, our focus on reality is weakened, we are easier to manipulate, and we often feel less happy or content despite having and doing more. We don’t really have any idea what smartphone mean to young child development.

The common thread is that technology is a tremendous boon. But it also has problems that often go ignored or denied.

What role does technology play in your life? What technologies could you live without, and which ones are central to what you do or who you are? Are you doing anything to address some of the negative aspects of technology in your everyday life?

Related questions: What is technology? Can technology solve our problems? How have we changed? Are science and religion compatible?