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Technology is the How, not the Why or What

Technology is the new religion, Silicon Valley is the new chosen land and entrepreneurs are the new chosen people. They promise a future that is better than we think – a techno-heaven of abundance and, naturally, immortality. And we are all believers now.

But we seem to forget that technology is merely the how and never the why or what. It is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. And that we should always start with why. At least this is the etymology of 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.

Unfortunately, today we have forgotten the original meaning and technology has started to mean something different. But the bigger issue is not the change in definition. Rather the problem lies in that technology seems to have now stopped being a means to an end and has become an end in itself.

“I am a big believer in technology” – we hear people profess as if technology is God. And thus we forget that there is a difference between using or liking something and worshiping it. I myself am a huge fan and user of technology. But I don’t worship it. Because worship is the path to mindless slavery. And I want to be the master of my technology, not a slave to it. But, our civilization may already be walking on a different path than naive romantics like me:

We used to do things because God wanted them done. Today we do things because it’s  “what technology wants.” God’s will on earth was supposedly inevitable. Today what technology does or creates is supposedly “inevitable.” [Philip K. Dick noted once: “Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.”]

And so, just like with Christianity, where fulfillment comes through following God, today we “follow” technology. But we miss the fact that in both cases we can end up enslaved. Are we the masters, or are we the tools of our tools? Are we exhibiting religious fetishism for technological objects? Are we creating personally cults around techno-prophets? Are we falling for new techno-religions – such as dataism? Is Nassim Taleb correct in saying that “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.”?

Those are the questions I want to ask here. And I hope you ask them too. Because the world is transformed by asking questions. And because technology is not enough. But the moment we stop questioning is the moment we become slaves. As Arthur C. Clarke presciently warned:

“Before you become entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

Technology is pretty good at giving us what we want but it is terrible at giving us what we need. It’s good at supplying information, even knowledge, but terrible at providing wisdom. It helps us live easier, more comfortable and longer lives, but it does not tell us why we should live or what to do with our lives in the first place. Most importantly, technology does not make us happy. There is no app for happiness. At least not yet. [And if or when there is one, then I would agree with Nassim Taleb that the path to slavery lies that way.]

So, while intelligence may help us get what we want, it is wisdom that helps us figure out what we should want [or not] in the first place. Intelligence can be useful only in that case. Because lacking the wisdom to know what we should and should not want but having the intelligence to get it is a common path to self-destruction.

And the day humanity becomes the how, and technology ends up being the why or the what, is the day that our freedom ends. Because the tool will become the purpose and the purpose will become the tool. That is why it is important to keep a proper perspective of our priorities. And to fight for them.

Technology in its original techne meaning was merely a tool, a means to an end, never an end in itself. It is useful as a crutch but, as with all crutches, we can become slaves to its use, unless we condition and develop our own strength. It can, therefore, enable just as much as it can disable us. So the danger is not that computers will become like humans. The real danger is that humans will become computers. As Gerd Leonhard says: “Embrace technology but do not become it.”

Maybe I’m just a naive romantic in thinking that technology is not enough. That ethics is the best operating system – present or future. And worrying that a society with infinite technological power but no ethics is doomed. Because while technology may be the path to our destruction or to our salvation, it will not be the reason as per why we end up there. And so we ought to start with why. The how is needed later.

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