You may have noticed that I’ve written less about technology on the blog this year than usual. That’s because I’ve been doing all of my tech writing over on my side project Prosumable. But I recently made the decision to shutter the site to focus on other projects (more on that in a future post), so I guess you can expect to read more of my thoughts on technology here again.
Writing about technology news this year has taught me a lot about the world of tech and the direction that it’s going. It’s helped me become more critical of the companies and other entities that are setting the course for the future of the industry. And it’s shifted my interest in technology from the day-to-day headlines and gadget announcements to the bigger, broader issues facing the tech world today and in the future.
So as I’m moving on from this writing project that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, I thought it might be worthwhile to stop and reflect on the things I’ve learned. Not just what I’ve learned about cool advances like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and ambient computing (Google it), but what I’ve learned about the technology world as a whole and what we as consumers should be looking out for going forward. Here are the most important issues facing technology today as I see them.
Number one: accessibility. As great as technology can be, it’s useless if people aren’t able to acquire it or use it. And accessibility is a problem on multiple fronts.
Many technologies are economically inaccessible. They’re simply too expensive for lower-income individuals and families to purchase. This is a shame because technology is often the very thing that can elevate people out of poverty when given the chance. Something as simple as a smartphone can open up a person to a world of economic possibilities including learning a marketable skill (such as coding), starting their own business, or cultivating professional relationships. Not to mention the educational benefit technology can have for children and adolescents. Fortunately, technology tends to become more economically accessible over time, and governments, non-profits, and even corporations themselves are working to make technology available to more low-income families every day, but there is certainly more work to be done here.
Even as the prices of new technologies go down, their geographic accessibility often remains severely limited. Did you know that you couldn’t purchase an Amazon Echo smart speaker in Canada until last month? Canada, the friendly, English-speaking country directly north of the United States, didn’t have access to a groundbreaking technology created by a U.S. business for over two years. And if things are that fragmented in the developed, western world, one can only imagine how much more complex it gets as one moves further away. There are significant portions of the world that don’t even have access to the internet today, which is why Facebook and Google are developing drones and weather balloons to bring access non-connected areas (which is scary in and of itself).
Things are getting better, slowly but surely. Tech companies are starting to see the potential for growth outside of their traditional boundaries and are exploring new markets, which can only benefit consumers worldwide. And individuals in new places will inevitably find unique, creative ways to use these technologies for the greater good. Technology has the ability to build bridges and close gaps on a number of different levels if we simply give it the opportunity to do so.
And of course, there’s accessibility as it’s traditionally understood. Making technology useful for individuals with disabilities has been a hit-or-miss endeavor to say the least. But as social awareness of and concern for such issues has grown, technology companies have responded to public pressure and integrated accessibility into their products. When I read about a blind man using haptic technology to run the New York marathon without an assistant this year, I had tears in my eyes. I only hope that we’ll see more of these stories come to light soon. These individuals have just as much to contribute to the world as we who are able-bodied do, and technology often gives them just the opportunities they need in order to do so.
Next up: accountability. This one is huge, and I think that everyday consumers are starting to understand it on some level. But it’s not just about net neutrality, or whatever big issue comes next. Technology is by its very nature amoral, neither good nor bad. And in order to ensure that it’s used for good and not evil, we must be vigilant about holding those in control at all levels accountable.
It starts with individuals. We each have to hold ourselves and those around us accountable for the ways that we use the tech that we have access to. I am horrified by the stories I read about the way people abuse online anonymity to harm others. And that is just one of many ways in which individuals try to use technology to avoid personal responsibility for their actions. No matter the medium we use, we must remember that all of our actions are real-world actions with real-world consequences. Technology does not change that. And so, we must take seriously what we do with it to ensure that we’re using it to make the world a better place and not a worse one.
Corporations are also in desperate need of accountability. Week after week, I read stories about companies misleading and exploiting their customers for their own gain. Nonconsensual data gathering here. Illegal information selling there. And hacks. There’s always a hack. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of these giant companies, but the truth is that regular consumers do have a say. Through voicing our opinions, pushing for regulation, and spending our money on products and services that align with our values, we have the ability to keep these companies accountable. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.
And finally, there’s the big one: governments. I’m no anarchist, but here’s something I know about governments: They will use any and every means available to gain as much power as they can. And technology has an incredible potential for gaining and leveraging power. It can highlight voices that would otherwise be suppressed, or it can be used to do just the opposite. In the United States, at least, government and business interests have become so intertwined that regular people feel practically powerless when it comes to choosing how they want technology to be regulated or even categorized in public discourse.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. When we see governing bodies overstepping their bounds and regulating technologies in ways we see unfit, we have channels that we can use to speak out. If you have the ability to vote, do it. Contact your representatives, even if they fall on a different part of the political spectrum than you do. Use your voice. Organize. We have to do everything we can to keep these organizations from suppressing innovation and keeping important technology out of the hands of everyday people.
And last but not least: intentionality. As I said above, technology is neither good nor evil. It has immense potential, but we have to be mindful of the ways that potential is used. Otherwise, we risk causing destruction with these tools that are meant to be profoundly constructive.
We must consider the ways that we integrate technology into our lives. I’m not one of those people who gets angry with strangers for texting at a restaurant, but I am concerned about the ways emerging technologies will change and potentially hinder human interaction. These tools are incredible, but they must be used responsibly and in moderation. Diminishing communication skills, distracted driving, and screen addiction are early warning signs of what happens when we aren’t intentional about the way we use technology. But these problems are not irreversible. It simply takes each of us choosing to focus our attention on the ways that our devices are improving and inhibiting our lives and then acting on those observations.
But intentionality can’t stop there. We also have to think about the costs these new technologies come with. Whether it be environmental damage, mistreatment of factory employees, or just the economic burden that technology can bring, we must count the cost. And when the cost is too great, we must be willing to say, “No.” Convenience does not outweigh conviction, and so we are each responsible for understanding the impact of the technologies we choose to utilize so that we can make purchase and use decisions that align with our values.
And finally, we must be intentional about using technology to improve lives. After all, that’s what it was created for. If technology isn’t helping people—if it isn’t having a net positive impact on the world—then what’s the point? We can keep making things smaller and cheaper and faster and better, but if it’s just for the sake of those things, then it’s all meaningless. Technology has always been made to benefit human beings, and we cannot get so caught up in the pursuit of progress that we lose sight of why we have these technologies in the first place.
Really, it all comes down to awareness. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the Prosumable project: increase awareness. Awareness of what technologies are available. Awareness of how these technologies impact our lives. Awareness of our rights and influence as consumers in the face of corporations and governments. Technology has the potential to be a great equalizer and to elevate the human population as a whole to heights we never thought possible. But if it’s going to do so, the world of technology must first and always tackle these three issues of accessibility, accountability, and intentionality if we ever hope to use technology to its fullest potential.