There are no shackles that bind technology to the cravings of the human ego. It may feel as though there are, but the truth is that our tools are a neutral extension of us that can hold any of our intentions. That gives us an enormous freedom for the future of technology.
Technology Extends the Ego
Since well before our origins as a species, our minds have fragmented experience into a steady stream of objects which we constantly assess for their impact on our survival. Over time, the human ego has extended this objectification process so that mental objects seem just as real as physical ones. Abstractions like money, attention, and power now shape our struggle for survival, and as social creatures, our most important objects are other people. In our modern drive to survive, we turn each other to stone.
What starts as biological, progresses to mental, and eventually to technological. Our egos extended our physical bodies and now technology extends our egos. Such is the overwhelming resilience of our drive to survive that we embed it in our machines. Now machines automate the ego’s objectification processes.
With Taylorism in the late 1800s, we arranged people around machines like cogs in still bigger machines called factories. Today, the objectification is more subtle but invasive. Machines pulse and throb a steady drip of money, attention and power as they captivate us in sprawling cybernetic networks. And we wonder why modern life feels strangely alienating.
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Technology is What We Make It
Most of us alive today grew up believing in a certain inevitability when it comes to technology. We sense — incorrectly— that the way we relate to technology today is the way we will relate to it in decades to come. We believe — mistakenly — that what is cold and alien today will only be more so tomorrow. We buy into the idea — though that is all it is — that the primary purpose of technology is to make money for its owners.
What would happen were we to change our assumptions about the future of our tools? What if we were to see them less as autonomous, hostile force, and more as intimate extensions of ourselves? To make that kind of shift, our understanding of what it means to be human could no longer afford to remain small and selfish. Our relationship with technology could no longer remain stuck in embrace with our most base emotions and addictions. Instead, it would need to help us elevate our emotions and refine our understanding of who and what we truly are.
Technology Through a Developmental Lens
It’s easy to dismiss talk of this kind as overly idealist or naive. Most of us like the fact that technology helps us achieve what our egos want. We like it that ATMs are fast, convenient and eliminate unneeded conversations with bank tellers. We also like getting attention for our posts on Facebook. The whole idea of changing our relationship to technology is a non-starter if it means giving up these very real benefits.
It’s not a black or white question though, especially if we think about technology through a developmental lens. Models like Spiral Dynamics take a developmental approach to describing different levels of cultural development, just as Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model describes different levels of personal development. Applying a developmental approach to technology means differentiating needs by various levels of cultural and personal development.
The technology market doesn’t much focus on higher-level needs such as self-actualization and spiritual development because that isn’t where the bulk of human experience is today. Our strong demand for ego-driven technology is the direct result of the ego-oriented culture in which we live. There are exceptions, however.
When Technology Moves Us
Think back, for example, to a time when music changed the nature of some experience you had. For me, it’s listening to Sheryl Crow’s C’Mon C’Mon while running here in Seattle. For some reason, her music just lit up my runs with a magical feeling that changed those experiences this summer. Can you think of an experience like that, where music transformed an experience for you?
Why bring this up? Because listening to music is a great example of technology acting as a faithful carrier and catalyst for deeper kinds of human experience. It’s so common that we tend to overlook the fact that it’s technology that mediates the experience for us.
Music is just one example, of course. We can also be deeply touched by YouTube videos and Facebook posts, and very soon we will be profoundly moved by experiences in virtual reality.
Lifting Our Technological Intentions
One thing that is important to remember, however, is that technology is utterly dependent upon the human heart for this kind of impact. When I look at images of our family road trips on my phone, there is no question that some essential aspect of those experiences comes through. But I have to be open to being touched by it. When I am, the technology acts as a faithful carrier of human emotions. When I’m in a bad mood or distracted, the signal becomes blocked — not by the technology, but by me.
No amount of bandwidth or pixel count can offset a closed human heart. This boundary is not technological. Tools can amplify our emotional barriers, but it is not in their power to create them in the first place. The impact of technology is utterly dependent upon our inner states and intentions.
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Automation and artificial intelligence are now broadening the range of human needs that technology can meet. As automation fulfills more of the lower tiers of our developmental needs, how will we respond? Will we be able to lift our focus to higher developmental needs such as love, self actualization and even spiritual development?
Whatever the answers are, they will only be partially technological. The real question centers on whether we rise to the occasion.
“The universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.” ~ Thomas Berry