quotes We must continue to question our obsession with technology

18 May 2024
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Updated 17 May 2024

We must continue to question our obsession with technology

I have the great fortune of belonging to a generation which has seen tremendous transformations, going from a world that resembled that of thousands of years of human history to one today filled with unthinkably advanced technology.

When I was a little boy, the streets were filled mostly with camels and donkeys, our houses were made of mud, and we had no running water or electricity. Today I live in a world where I get cold drinking water from a tap, the air in my house is always conditioned to the right temperature, and I speak to my friends and family across the world via instant video call. Washing clothes or cooking a meal are no longer day-long processes, as we have won great comforts in life. Still, the question remains: at what cost have we gained these capabilities?

It is almost a cliché that in old age we think back at a world that was better, friendlier and more enjoyable than today. But that is not what I am looking at here — I am simply inviting us all to consider the comforts as well as the dangers and vulnerabilities that technology has brought to our world. On a most basic human level, for example, we notice that, while technology gives us access to means of communication and the wealth of human knowledge, it often removes us from our immediate environment and our interactions with our families. The proverbial dinner table for many is no longer the privileged space of empathy, education and bonding that it once was. This is a change we have not yet adjusted to, surrendering our new generation to values learned not from family but through technology.

It is the unintended and secondary effects of technology that often have the greatest impact. One can indeed uphold that the state of our planet and environment today is a direct result of our obsession with ever-advancing technology. Before the industrial revolution, we were not destroying natural habitats around the globe or causing extreme weather and global warming that is making entire parts of the globe un-liveable.

Think about the oceans that cover 70 percent of our planet, which a combination of advanced technology and greed has allowed us to push to the brink, with 90 percent of fish stocks fully exploited or overexploited. This could mean, scientists say, that within 40 years there could be no more fish in the sea, with a disastrous effect on ocean life including the algae that provide twice as much oxygen as all the Earth’s forests combined. The dramatic increase in fish-farming will not save us either. We are doing devastating damage to our environment, but the human horrors taking place today are hogging all our attention.

There is a sense today also that corporate greed is being carried ever further through the new capabilities of technology.

There is a sense today also that corporate greed is being carried ever further through the new capabilities of technology. A lower dependence on labour has been made possible by machines, but we are now entering an era in which artificial intelligence is set to replace far more jobs and people yet. Last year’s five-month Writers’ Guild of America strike in Hollywood was caused as much by the lower incomes afforded by streaming platforms as by the threat of artificial intelligence replacing the writers and creatives in the industry. The agreement reached in the end should serve as a warning to every industry and society at large, highlighting the necessity of regulating artificial intelligence to assist, but not replace, the human element.

It is especially when we look at technologies that make it possible to wipe humans from the planet that we enter very ambivalent territory. The atomic bomb kills and destroys at a scale never imagined. For a long time, this power of Armageddon was held in check by what we called mutually assured destruction, but as technology moves forward, access to devastating weapons and methods of killing is becoming too straightforward and difficult to control. On the other hand, nuclear power has become a powerful tool for protecting our environment from carbon emissions, yet, as Chernobyl and Fukushima clearly show, accidents carry a tremendous cost and accidents will always exist. The powers and industry are the ones who dictate our direction and adoption.

When we look at the intolerable situation of the war on Gaza, where tens of thousands of women and children are being slaughtered from afar, we are once again presented with the aberrations that technology has made possible. Upon the decisions of a handful of no-doubt certifiably mad leaders, technology is employed to raze entire blocks and kill thousands of innocent civilians without having to look them in the eye or even get anywhere close. At the same time, it is also technology that has enabled the people of Gaza to show the world what is happening to them, bringing citizens onto the streets around the world to demonstrate against their governments’ tacit support of criminal Israeli policies. Technology has thereby also allowed a revival of empathy, even in countries or areas that had remained indifferent for so long.

The question I ponder above all is how in a world in which technology has provided us so many comforts, capabilities, and contentment, we can still favour killing, hatred and destruction, and how we can exhibit such greed damaging our societies and our environment when we already have all we need. I think the interrogation of whether we are better off today with technology or not, is not one that can ever be satisfyingly answered. Instead, it is an interrogation that must be ever-present as a way of weighing both the benefits and the pitfalls of our fixation with technology. With technology there is so much we can gain, but there is also so much we stand to lose.

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi Arabia’s petroleum ministers, Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani, from 1959-67. He led the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972-81 and served with the Arab League’s observer delegation to the UN from 1981-83.