This week we’re listening: Questions we need to ask ourselves about the tech in our lives
From tables to tablets, technology is all around us. In this podcast episode, the New York Times’ Ezra Klein speaks to LM Sacasas, a writer and expert in the ethics of technology.
- Format: Single episode
- Year: 2021
- Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.
“I’m so taken by the power of what technology can do for us, I think we underestimate – and actually worse, we ignore – what technologies actually do to us. We do not just use these tools. We become them. We are reshaped by them,” host Ezra Klein says.
The conversation stems from Sacasas’s article, “The Questions Concerning Technology”, where he poses 41 questions to ponder about responsible, moral and realistic use of the tech in our world.
What both Klein and Sacasas clarify early in the episode is that the definition of “technology” they are working with here is very broad – it is not limited to electronic devices but extends to the tools humans use in our everyday lives.
“It’s computers and artificial intelligence and Zoom, but it’s also tables and alarm clocks and ovens,” Klein explains.
Sacasas uses the example of a hammer, a tool that can be used in different ways to accomplish different goals. The hammer itself stays the same, it is still a hammer, but what we do with it is different – our humanity is impressed onto the technology we use.
“Now, a hammer can be used to build a home. It can be used to bash in a skull. So one way of looking at a technology like a hammer is the ethics of it are simply what we do with it. It is just our ethics, transferred to the hammer,” Klein explains.
“The tool is ostensibly neutral… I can do good things with this tool, this hammer. I can use it to build a house or repair something, or I can use it to hit somebody. And in that sense, what matters is my intention and the use to which I put it,” Sacasas says.
But this explanation is, to a certain extent, fairly reductive, he says. What this analogy does not define is “how technology impinges on the moral life or what we think of as ethics”.
“The example that I give there with the hammer has to do with perception. So, one of the key ways in which I think technologies fail to be neutral is that they shape how we perceive the world, and they dispose us in a certain way towards the world,” Sacasas says.
So, perhaps technology is not as neutral as first believed.
What sort of person will the use of this technology make me?
Klein pivots to another form of technology, Twitter.
“So I use Twitter as a way of building relationships, garnering information, kind of keeping an eye on the way the world in that little Twittersphere is reacting to current events,” Sacasas describes.
“And I find that when I’m on Twitter, I tend to feel a little anxious, a little scatterbrained. I do feel like my focus is sort of distracted in ways that aren’t entirely good for me.
“I do feel it taxes me mentally. It frames the way I think about what I say… I’m very aware of the audience on Twitter and how they might respond to what I may want to tweet.”
This, Sacasas says, results in a constant cycle of editing oneself as you think. There is no space for free thought when you have to edit what you are thinking as you go, and Sacasas wonders to what extent that overflows into other aspects of our lives?
“And then, there’s of course the tendency to take the experience of Twitter and normalise it, or to say that this is a one-to-one map of reality… It’s a kind of performance that we’re undergoing for the audience on Twitter. Those are some of the ways that I think come to mind, in terms of how that’s beginning to shape me as a person, the way that I think about myself and what I do,” Sacasas says.
“It makes me more audience- and approval-hungry, and possibly more backlash-aversive or something,” Klein adds.
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided another convenient case study of technology and how we use it. While the world was isolated, video conferencing site Zoom saw a 370% increase in 2020 from the year before.
“The future is here with the rise of remote and work-from-anywhere trends,” said Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, reported the BBC.
And yet, many have reported feeling fatigued by constant video conferencing and working on-camera – the technology bringing people together in a time of mass isolation became a source of anxiety.
Why is speaking on Zoom so exhausting?
Sacasas believes it’s all about how the body is represented and experienced during the conference call.
“We’re abstracting the body from the act of communication… the body is really essential to the work of meaning-making in communication settings. We pick up on all sorts of cues from one another to register whether someone’s paying attention or they’re losing interest, or whether they’re tracking with what we’re having to say,” he explains.
Key aspects of the body in communication are missing on video call, he says. Things like body language are more difficult to pick up, too. To look into someone’s eyes on the call means we have to look at the screen, not the camera: our attempts to make genuine eye contact mean we are not making eye contact at all. In fact, that vital part of a conversation is taken away entirely.
“The camera is positioned in such a way that if I try to give you eye contact, I can’t see your eyes and vice versa. And so we lose that ability to look into one another’s eyes.” Sacasas says.
Sacasas also believes Zoom pushes us to focus on our own bodies in a different way than in an in-person conversation.
“If we haven’t hidden self-view, we have a tendency just to look at ourselves in these settings. We see ourselves there and we want to make sure that we don’t look too foolish in our presentation. And our eye glances at that,” he says.
All of this is exhausting. The experience is laborious as our minds scramble to fill the gaps missing in this virtual conversation.
“Our mind is labouring when it’s used to using these tacit cues from the bodily experience, and it loses track of those or has a really hard time focusing on them,” Sacasas explains.
How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
What about the tool we all use almost every day? Klein poses search engines as a possible example of how technology affects how people relate to each other.
“If we rely on the search engine, for example, to form our picture of the world, our idea of what others are like, when we try to understand those that are not immediately in our network of friends or colleagues, then it filters a picture of the world of others to us,” Sacasas says.
The whole purpose of a search engine is to filter and sort information and present the closest match back to the searcher, but what filters are in place that we do not know about? What is included and what is left out?
“How is the algorithm calibrating the kind of information I’m going to receive?” Sacasas asks.
All of those factors have an impact on the information fed back to us, and that begs the questions: What should we know that we don’t, what do we know that was not relevant, and how has this informed and manipulated our views on the world?
“That does tend to impact the shape of our perception of others, not necessarily those closest to us, but those others that we know in this more mediated fashion. It changes our understanding of who they are, and eclipses, important aspects of the fullness of their personality, or the complexity of their view of the world. I think that would be perhaps a risk with the search engine as the mediator of our relationship to others,” Sacasas says.
“This made me think about how many conversations with other people I do not have because of search engines,” Klein adds.
Does the use of this technology bring me joy?
To answer this, Sacasas speaks about one, perhaps more mundane, piece of technology: the table.
“The table gathers and separates and creates a setting for conversation, for fellowship. That’s been so fundamental to human experience. Food and sociability have been a centerpiece of human cultures throughout recorded history and beyond. And so the table that we gather around in this way can be a great source of joy.”
This is a piece of technology that has persisted, through the centuries, people are still using it to gather around and share meals together. Sacasas believes this is because of its communal nature, how it forces us to be present and together when we all sit around and look inward, instead of directing our gaze outward, we look at each other.
“Even the way furniture is organised, something as simple as a table – the way it organises our relationships and mediates those relationships, the way it, again, brings us together or excludes us… even in our homes, the ordering of this material space through these various artifacts can be more or less conducive to encouraging connection, human relationship, conversation,” Sacasas explains.
While there are many more questions that the podcast works through, what stands out throughout the episode is that there are pros and cons to everything. All forms of technology carry the capacity for good and bad. A table can divide depending on who sits where, or it can bring people together. Search engines can open us up to knowledge, or filter our experiences down to the results that come up on the first page of Google.
What matters is us. What matters is what we bring to technology, the morals and values we apply to it and the humanity with which we use technology – instead of letting it use us. DM/ML
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