Making sense of the Age of Technology
There is something deeply dysfunctional about living in an age of ideas when all ideas look the same.
To understand this, one needs to stand outside the bubble that we all live in. Yes, it does seem that there are a lot of new things happening around us - the wonder-device of a smart-phone transforming our world by hailing taxis and ordering take-aways - and yet, everything seems to be an app, every politician seems to be the same, the media is either starkly left or starkly right, all companies seem to live in a make-believe world of valuation - and very little of what matters seem to change around us.
I have been navigating this world for a long time with a deep confusion. The trouble really is that the technologists usually talk things up. The approach of science - that one arrives at a conclusion through falsification, by trying to prove why it is not the case - is not the approach of the modern technologists. Rather, superlatives abound and claims precede capabilities; the promised change always look rickety when it arrives and freedom is delivered in the form of a factory-produced food. In the mad rush to mind-share, narcissism of small differences reign supreme.
Now that statement is familiar: I am repeating Peter Drucker's claim that the ATM was really the last great invention that changed lives. But it's actually astounding to contrast the progress of underlying technologies, materials and capabilities with the puny ambitions of the more visible commercial applications; the world-changing work in the labs are being drowned out by venture capital fuelled attention merchandising. The real question is why are we doing so little, when the science is capable of so much. Despite the orgy of ambitious claims, the commercial vision of technology seems really unambitious, limited to a race-bound class-bound 'brotopia'.
Therefore, the question - how does one think about the future? The binary choices of optimism and pessimism - these days, most choices are binary - don't offer adequate scope to think about the prospects. While pessimism is impossible considering the great strides in capability, optimism looks hollow too, as diseases persist, fools rule and things, including ecosystems, fall apart. What is one to do when confronted with so much progress and so much regression at the same time, when smartness and foolishness seem to emanate from the same sources, when knowledge chases away wisdom and creativity seems plausible only through conformity?
My answer is of a Sceptical Optimism. In today's climate of opinions, scepticism and optimism face each other off, when true believers are the only ones allowed into the podium. Either you believe we are progressing or you don't; either you jump up and down or you are a long-faced pedantic, sore about losing out. But, faith in the future and scepticism about received wisdom were really the source of all this progress; believing and questioning at the same time are the twin motors of the modern civilisation.
So, as I write, my approach is not to question the possibilities of technology or to seek refuge in an imagined golden age of the past, but to interrogate whether our priorities are right in defining the objectives and employing the possibilities. This has now become the theme of my work, at a point when I am about to embark on the next stage of my career, and this is what I wish to keep writing about on this blog.