Technology is a Magnifying Mirror, Not a Crystal Ball

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest species of them all?”
“You, oh Homo Sapiens, are smart, it is true. But AI will be smarter even than you.”

The most popular myth about technology is perhaps the myth that technology is a crystal ball. A crystal ball because it allegedly allows us to see the future. And to evaluate if that is indeed true, or not, we have to understand the etymology of the word technology – what it means and stands for, or at least what it used to mean and stand for.

The word technology comes from two Greek words – techne and logos. Techne means art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained. Logos means word, the utterance by which inward thought is expressed, a saying, or an expression. So, literally, technology means words or discourse about the way things are gained. In other words, technology is merely “how” we do things and not “why” we do them or “what” we should be doing. Because it is not an end in itself but rather merely a means to an end.

So technology is not a crystal ball because it does not help us see the future. Instead, technology is a magnifying mirror because it merely reflects our present and, more importantly, who we are.

Technology is a mirror because it reflects the engineers, designers, and programmers who make it. But it is also a mirror to humanity in general and all of our collective dreams, hopes and fears, our knowledge and our ignorance, our strengths, and weaknesses, our good, and our evil. But it is not a normal kind of mirror because technology magnifies and amplifies things – so it always has unforeseen consequences. And the key point here is that technology doesn’t have an essence of its own because it merely reflects our own essence.

So, instead of focusing exclusively on polishing the mirror – i.e. improving technology, we might want to invest some time and resources on improving the image we ourselves project in it – i.e. who we are being, what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Therefore, ultimately, it is not about technology. It’s about us.

Because, as I’ve said many times before, you can have the best possible How but if you mess up your Why or What you will do more damage than good. That is why technology is not enough.

And there are many historical examples of how better technology did not make our lives better but worse. For example, historian Yuval Noah Harari called the Agrarian Revolution “history’s greatest fraud.” [Because in every way measurable – i.e. health, longevity, work hours per week, nutrition, infant mortality, etc, we were better off as hunter-gatherers.] And today, if we are not careful, we are running the risk that our current technological revolution may also turn out to be our epoch’s greatest fraud. And you can see that nowhere better than in Silicon Valley and Facebook.

Why Facebook? Because Facebook started as magic, then it became manic and, with the Cambridge Analytica revelations, we realized it has become monstrous. And it is not hard to see that most technologies we have invented since the industrial revolution either already follow a similar path from magic through manic to monstrous, or are in danger of doing that. Because humanity is magic, manic and monstrous. And technology reflects us. Examples abound but I can’t think of anything better than plastic.

You see, in the early 20th-century plastic was literally marketed as the magic material. Because you could do almost anything out of plastic but cheaper, faster and easier. And so we quickly became manic obsessive with plastic and did build almost everything out of it. But today it is not hard to see that we are neck-deep in the monstrous stage because whole areas of our oceans contain more plastic pieces than fish. And, to give you a tiny example of just how bad it has become, check this out:

we now produce 1,000,000 plastic water bottles per minute on our planet.

What is worse is that, at best, only 9% ever get recycled. The other 910,000 plastic bottles per minute, end up in the environment. And, of course, water bottles are but a tiny fraction of the total plastic production on our planet. So it is no surprise that we are literally drowning in this originally magic, then manic and now monstrous technology. [Why would AI be any different?!]

So technology doesn’t help us see the future. It only helps us see ourselves. And if we put garbage in, we are going to get garbage out. Only this time it’s exponential. Ditto with stupidity, prejudice or evil.

Therefore, we can’t really fix technology unless we fix ourselves first. Because technology is a magnifying mirror, not a crystal ball.

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