Technology is often sold to the public as a kind of fix-all; the duct tape for all of society’s issues, and the engine that inevitable drives progress forward. As someone who is deeply vested in technology I used to buy into this narrative myself, but it seems much more appropriate to look at technology as a tool that can be used equally for good or for evil.
The best example I can come up with is the invention of nuclear energy. In the right hands, in a just society, nuclear energy can be harnessed safely and effectively to increase the power we have to increase productivity and decrease the need for manual labor. Dramatic increases in our ability to produce energy have been closely correlated with dramatic increases in our material well-being.
On the flip side, the same energy and the same automation can be used to make a large number of humans obsolete; to create a society that has abundance, but gives to few. Eventually we will reach a post-scarcity society where automation begets more automation with little human intervention, and what then? Even now there is a general consensus that supply-side, trickle-down economics is a deficient model to explain the modern economy.
And, more terrifying still is the existential threat that has come with harnessing nuclear energy as a weapon. While societies across the globe have never been great at just getting along, they’ve also never had the ability to completely obliterate each other and ruin the planet for everyone else in the process. More than once such a tragedy has been narrowly avoided by the decisions of only a few individuals.
Technology is a powerful tool, but in order to achieve progress we need to focus on our social systems with even more zeal. Left in the hands of the few technology will be used to benefit the few at great expense to the rest of society. We must be vigilant in ensuring that decisions about how we use technology are democratized; everyone, from the CEO of the largest tech company to the guy at home “liking” a post must have an equal say in the role we want technology to play in our society. We need experts to handle the details, but the masses should be the ones setting the course.