Can Technology Make Us Better?

“I’m going to tell you a story about a time I made someone cry,” I told the fourth and fifth grade Sunday School class. They settled in, excited, as I described the scene: sixth grade, the start of a long stretch of awkwardness. One of my classmates was trying to collect his thoughts in answer to a question and couldn’t quite get there. “I think…I think…” he said, then trailed off.

“Do you even think at all?” I blurted out. And the other kids laughed. The boy I’d made fun of ran out of the room crying. I’ll never forget the look on his face before he did.

I paused the story. The kids, the present-day ones, looked alarmed. This is not where they thought the story was going. Most of my stories have happy endings, and along the way involve funny things like zombies with lightsabers, exploding grape slushies, and me launching an offensive disguised as a bush during a game of Capture the Flag. They probably thought I’d made someone cry with joy, or, more likely, by accidentally injuring them in a comical way.

This Amy, they were starting to realize, did something mean. Plain and simple.

“Do you know why I did it?” I asked.

Twelve pairs of wide eyes stared up at me. No one volunteered an answer.

So I gave it to them. “I did it because I wanted to.”

I went on to explain that I loved being the center of attention. I wanted people to like me and think I was funny. So when I saw a chance to make a joke at someone else’s expense…I took it.

That’s what I thought of when I saw this clip from a Louis C.K. interview about how cell phones have changed bullying. (The main point is in the first two minutes, and if you just listen to those, you’ll also miss the language.)

I use this example in particular partly because it’s got something profoundly true to say about how technology can distance us from others. As Louis C.K. says, a cell phone can’t teach empathy.

But I also included it because Louis C.K. is one of many Hollywood figures caught up in a storm of sexual misconduct and abuse. In that aspect of his story, we see some of the complexities of technology: it’s given victims a voice and it’s made it easier for us to hurl condemnation from afar. It’s made entertainers into idols and then publicized their falls.

I saw a response by Sarah Silverman, his friend and colleague, who talked about the hurt that comes when someone you love does bad things. What stuck out to me most, though, was at the very end when she said, “We need to be better. We will be better.”

And I have to admit that part of me wondered, “Will we? Does saying it make it true?”

Silverman compared the growing number of sexual assault accusations to the painful but necessary process of cutting out a cultural tumor. And you know what? I wish as a culture we were putting the cancer under a knife.

But history tells me otherwise. We cut out the tumor of slavery, and the cancer of racism remained.

We tried to cut out the tumor of rampant alcoholism by banning liquor, and excess and abuse remained. Then we tried to cut out the tumor of violence and prudishness by overturning that ban, and both gangs and legalists remained.

We cut out the tumor of the disenfranchisement of women, and the cancer of objectifying women remained—and grew, and took on new forms.

Enabled by new technologies, yes. But also enabled by our lust and greed and pride and the rest of the seven deadly sins.

I know it’s not cool to talk about sin and evil, but what else does the #metoo movement tell us, if not that everyday people can do terrible things? What have most of the horrific tragedies and genocides of the modern era taught us if not that evil is real, and evil is in us?

Including me. Always including me. I can observe the evil that goes on around me, but the evil I know best is the kind in my heart, the lies and boasts and slights, the angry rants and dark thoughts and divisive actions. The brave words I don’t say, the cruel ones I do—from that comment as an eleven-year-old until now.

Relevant because this is eleven-year-old me, and also because apparently I thought technology was magic.

Hold on, you say, this was supposed to be a post about technology. Why are you rambling on about sin and evil?

It relates, I promise. This is the perspective I’m coming from when I argue with two popular ways of looking at technology.

One is that technology is the key to being happier and better. Progress! Yay! This could be the simple consumerism that knows the billions of dollars spent on SuperBowl ads last night were worth it because now all I want to do is buy Tide detergent, or a broader philosophy that we’re making the world better through advances in science, medicine, and engineering. Either way, it’s a pretty common idea that technology is good, and the newer (safer, fancier, stronger, more eco-friendly, efficient, beautiful, or insert-adjective-of-your-choice-here), the better.

But I want to say: our machines won’t make us better. They can make us live longer or give us more leisure time or travel faster or help us kill larger groups of people from farther away. But whenever I meet a person or read an article or watch a movie that seems to worship progress, I wonder if they’ve thought about the dark side of human creativity and invention. Because even if it wasn’t a technology’s original purpose, we can almost always find a way to use it to do terrible things.

Which brings me to another way of looking at technology: that it’s just things we use. So for example, the Internet in this view is a neutral tool. Some people use it for good, some people use it for evil.

But I want to say: the Internet, like most technology, is also a cultural force. Sometimes we shape it, most of the time it shapes us, because we’re not thinking and talking about how it’s changing our culture. It’s like the digital age came with one hundred pages of fine-print terms and conditions that we didn’t read, didn’t even scan, before we accepted them, because we wanted what it could give us no matter the cost.

The next few posts are going to be what I think this is some of the fine print of technology: how blockbusters have given us common myths, what happens when advertising is everywhere, whether social media is antisocial, and why we have more leisure time than any other time in history…and yet are busier and lonelier than ever before.

If you can’t tell, I am twenty-six years old and basically a curmudgeon…but we’re going to have fun anyway.

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