May 27, 2002
Technology Bites Life
Technology has been invented by humans, for humans, in a quest for the betterment of human life. Legend (back up by science) says we evolved from the cave man, and for over 95% of the time the modern Homo Sapiens have inhabited the planet (120,000 years), we used to live in non-air-conditioned caves and chased down real live animals for food. How primitive, how barbaric, how inhuman!
Much has happened since then, and we all agree that the plight of the human race has much improved. Much evidence is around that the improvement in conditions is real, and it has been caused by much advances in knowledge leading to the use of technology in our lives. Clouded by this rosy view, we have embraced technology as the ultimate savior.
At one point in time, there was no artificial lighting. Hence, life slowed down after dark. In most of the human habitats, night lasted about 10 hours, give or take a few. We can assume, that the historically humans mainly slept during this time. Then some technical minded reveler found a way to create light from controlled fires. Then of course, in the interest of fun, sleep was cut down and humans gathered around the fire and imbibed in comforting food, drinks and conversation. Today, we are lucky to get over 6 hours of rest a day.
The resounding mantra of the technology promoters is that technology “makes life better”. Not only better, it brings enjoyment, promotes leisure, cuts down on laborious tasks, enhances efficiency and gets work done faster (hence improves productivity). In effect, it has a beneficial effect on comfort, well-being, safety, health, knowledge and happiness.
Much of the benefits of the rush to embrace technology are indisputable. Yet the positive role of the advent of technology may have been overstated. Is it really true that technology has shaped our lives for the better? Is it true that we work less, play more and have ramped up our enjoyment? To an extent, yes, but yet there is a darker side.
Even in ancient times, humans realized the need to travel. Horses were the beasts of choice. Then came the steam engine and they could move rather large numbers of people rather fast. Even later came the automobile and then the airplane. Today huge numbers of people rush around the world jam-packed like sardines in little metal containers that hurtle though the stratosphere. Time to destination has plummeted. Cost of travel has declined sharply. Whereas a human at one time could not conceive traveling more than a tens of miles away from his or her place of birth, we can, and do circumnavigate the globe in a matter of days (or less).
But what has that done to the quality of life? A smallish fragment of the human population travel for pure pleasure. Most travelers are harried people trying to get from one meeting to another, or maybe rushing to meet a relative or friend in the shortest possible time. Access to travel has made us more nomadic, families get routinely separated by large distances, and travel is the only way to stay in closer contact. Airplanes gave us the ability to travel, lifestyle changes made it mandatory to travel.
The computer brought us, among other things, the ability to communicate via Email. To a new user of Email, Email is magic. A message gets to the destination in a manner of seconds. Responses are obtained in minutes. No need to gather stationary, write, stuff envelopes, lick stamps, go to the post office and wait for the postman to bring in the reply after days or weeks. Saves time, promotes faster gratification.
Yet, the magic of Email has become somewhat of a curse. I fondly remember days when a letter in the mail brought joy. Today Email is almost a nuisance. Every morning there is an inbox full of Email. Too many people want to tell you to do things, ask questions, give advise—and want you to act on it right away. On top of that there is the scam filled “spam”. Hours are spent gleaning through the mess of messages and responding to them. Studies show that managers at companies spend so much time attending to Email that they find it hard to keep up with the assigned workload. Where is the saved time?
Yet technology is so impressive, so addictive and so cool. We all wonder how did we live without what we have today. How did we manage not only to live, but in fact heartily survive without radio, television, electricity, transport, printers, dishwashers, plumbing, copiers, telephones and such. Can you really write a book using paper and a typewriter? Is it possible to arrange an international trip using just postal mail? Impossible!
Every time, I sit down to write a column, I suddenly realize I am missing a few facts. I may need to find a date, or a name or want to check whether something I think is true is indeed true. Years back gathering this information would have needed a trip to the library, maybe multiple trips. Today, even in the middle of the night, I just holler for my trusty assistant with a funny name “Google”. In seconds I find what I need to know, at no cost. Of course the time saved is enormous and priceless. (Why is such a valuable service, free?)
Since we are all saving so much time, do we all have more spare time than we know what to do with? After all, that was the promise of technology. Sadly, this promise has not been delivered and looks like it never will. Work expands to fill any available time, and as we have been able to do more in less time, we have been expected to do more. So much more that there is much less time today for leisure than there ever has been. Study after study show that humans work more and recreate less. There is less time for friends and family. As society, driven by technology keeps striding forward we rush more, socialize less and wonder why we are getting so dysfunctional.
Ever since the early days of technology many a social thinker expressed one deep fear—the replacement of humans with machines. Yes it has happened, and continues to happen at a feverish pace. We do not dig ditches by hand any more as machines do it. We do not keep financial records in ledgers any more; computers store it in some form of memory. Clothes are not stitched by tailors; they are mass-produced by machines. Hence, at an alarming rate, human jobs are being lost to the inhuman machine. Many an expert predicted a cataclysm, a crisis that would drive humans out of work in large numbers, leading to unemployment, poverty and such.
Thankfully, this attempt to vilify technology has all but failed. Astonishingly, for every job lost to technology, more have been created. It is quite apparent that humans enjoy a higher standard of living today than at any time in history. Employment is highest in regions of the world where technology is used the most. Emigration of humans has always been from the underdeveloped regions to the developed regions (looking for jobs). If technology was a job killer, this would not be possible.
The example of the greatest impact of technology for human benefit is probably medical science. Not only have our longevity expanded radically, we supposedly suffer less. Capsules containing magical chemicals treat diseases. Physical ills are fixed by a dazzling array of surgical techniques. In fact, as we discover new ways of doing things, surgery is being replaced by non-intrusive techniques.
The promise of “nano-technology” is quite astounding. Suppose you are suffering from a blocked artery. In the past it meant open-heart surgery—a very scary prospect. Then came angioplasty, a method in which a thin gadget is sent up to the heart via blood vessels and can scrape off the blockage. Now there is laser-angioplasty. But wait, there is talk of the ultimate way to perform surgery, using robots so small that they are almost invisible. Inject thousands of them into the body and then use radio waves and computers to instruct them to travel, cut and sew. No scalpel, no laser, nothing goes in, surgery gets done. Is this fiction? Not really.
Yet the advances in medicine have not really eliminated suffering. It can be argued that we now live longer and suffer more. Instead of dying in a matter of days from fast acting terminal diseases we are kept alive to a point where humans cannot take care of themselves. Older citizenry often suffer from neglect, poverty, emotional distress and such, just because we live beyond what our bodies can bear, propped up by drugs, needles, gadgets, computers, monitors and myriads of life support systems.
Technology is here to stay and has had a profound, mostly positive impact on human life. The democratization of technology has put the power of information, communication and activism down to the level of the unwashed masses. The road to progress is paved with very good intentions. Yet we seem to be taking many steps forward and many steps back all at the same time.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at