Technology For The Sake Of Technology?

I found this thought-provoking article on the Web. It debates what continuous adoption of (often disruptive) technology, without considering the ends which they may help us achieve, is doing to us as a society. The author terms it our “hollowing out as human beings”.

The article’s been written some time ago, because it mentions the Heaven’s Gate Cult Suicide of 1997 as a relatively recent event. It’s scary that this “technology overload”, as it were, had its beginnings at least seven years ago. Imagine how much technology we’re bombarded with today. Why are we, then, almost unaware of this phenomenon? Have we adapted to this, are we now able to keep up with the pace of technological evolution? Or is this like a ticking time bomb – one fine day might we all reach a limit and collectively scream “no more!”?

It’s a topic about which I’ve lately thought about, too. It’s easier for me, involved in the computer technology industry, to realise the implications of what the author’s talking about. Maybe I’m a victim of this “hollowing out” also. Let me explain. I work exclusively on the Linux platorm at home. I’ve been doing so for the past 3 years. Now the Open Source Community churns out software updates at an alarmingly fast rate. This includes the Linux kernel itself, Linux distributions, development tools, productivity software, internet software, and the like. I like to keep my system populated with the latest versions of whatever software I use. These include browsers, email clients, code editors, music players, IMs, and more. I find myself spending a lot of (paid) Internet time simply downloading the source for these updated releases, compiling and installing them, and deleting the older versions. Then I start up the application again, confirm the newer version number, and get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside about “living on the cutting edge”.

But lately I’ve come to question the very purpose of doing this. I spent the last two weeks downloading Fedora Core 2 (a four CD set, now – see this article on OSNews about software bloat). I only get free broadband access on Sundays, so the last few Sundays (and today) have been spent downloading FC2 full-time, which meant that I had to cut down on my browsing. Now I’m thinking – do I really need FC2? What does it offer me over FC1? New software? No. I’ve already updated the programs that I run, so much so that they’re newer than those that FC2 includes. And why am I obsessed with running the latest versions of my applications? Take Gaim, the ubiquitious Instant Messenger for Linux, as an example. Now that I think about it, the only time I actually needed to upgrade was when Microsoft introduced a new standard for communication via its MSN protocol. I don’t even know (or even care) what new features Gaim’s introduced since then. I certainly don’t notice anything new. That goes for almost all the applications that I use. I’m just using up my Internet time and bandwidth with them, I guess. I have friends who are happily running Redhat 8.0 or even 7.3 – over 2 years old.

Of course, what I’m giving you is just the user’s perspective. What the original article talked about was the actual development of technology, from the producer’s point of view rather than the consumers’. In terms of Open Source, though, this kind of “technology for the sake of technology” is acceptable. After all, most developers of such software work on it during their free time (ok, so they actually free up some time for these pursuits, but the logic is the same) – they have a day job that provides for their families. The problem here lies with the users of such software. I’m sure there are scores like me – who upgrade for the sake of upgrading.

One of the oldest adages we learnt was “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I wonder if that’s even valid anymore. It’s more like “Invention begets necessity” these days. A new technology finds itself a use, rather than the other way round. But why does society accept, often blindly, new tools that become available with such frenzied frequency?

I’ll take mobile phones as an exmaple. Mobile phones now are so rich in features, like 32-bit color screens, wireless connectivity, cameras (some with zoom, for God’s sake!), “polyphonic” ring tone capabilities, and on and on – that it makes me wonder how many of these features we really use. In India (OK, in Mumbai, at least), owning the latest and snazziest mobile phone isn’t even a status symbol anymore – everyone’s got the best. But scan the list of features above, and think for a while how many of them are really useful – useful for the basic purpose of a mobile phone, which is communication. Perhaps we’re spending too many resources innovating in the wrong areas. Instead of polyphonic ring tones, how about researching smarter notification techniques; instead of 32-bit color screens how about working on smarter, easier-to-use grayscale interfaces? It’s been pointed out over and over that the one factor that will limit innovation in phone displays is the size of the screen – so how about working to overcome that? The dimensions of photographs taken with a typical mobile phone camera are way too small and awkward to find any practical use. I know there are phones with cameras that allow for full, 800×600 pixels or better resolutions, but they’re outrageously expensive, and that’s because the cost of the camera is far greater than that of the phone.

And what does that last point indicate? Simply that too much innovation obscures the fundamental purpose for developing that technology in the first place.

There’s another side to this argument, though – and it would become another essay in itself – that we do not have any idea of future uses for today’s outlandish research. The vast majority of the public thinks that research into subatomic physics, into deep space astronomy, and into putting mega-pixel digtal cameras into ever-tinier mobile phones (!) is a collosal waste of time and money. Also, research into technologies such as cloning, and high-tech weaponry, is downright dangerous and should be Stopped At Once. These things are viewed as “Technology for the sake of technology”. But we can gaze only so far into the future. We have no way of finding out if today’s research into what appear to be useless/dangerous fields, actually turn out to be the base for some tremendously useful technology, one that solves a major problem, or makes life unimaginably richer. Are we stifling our future by limiting such research? Are we denying a possible better life to our future generations by insisting that today’s innovators solve today’s problems?

That’s one debate that’s far from being settled.