Technology as a Social Good?

In the early 1990’s, the CTV Network produced a show that looked at the impact of technology in our lives.  As more and more technology was being introduced into our daily lives, “smart homes” were thought to be the future (perhaps becoming closer to reality today with the internet of things).  To discuss whether the introduction of smart homes was ultimately a positive or a negative the show had two guests: author and NYU professor of communications Dr. Neil Postman, and futurist Don Tapscott, author some fifteen books, including Wikinomics, and The Digital Economy.

What I remember most about this show, aside from being able to implement home security (locked doors) and privacy (opaque windows) with a voice command, was the opposing views of the two protagonists.  Don Tapscott argued (and still does) that technology can be very empowering, and when implemented in the home will promote independent living to an advanced age.  On the other hand, Neil Postman was much more critical.  He saw real problems in our communities that could only be solved by talking about them, within the community, but “now you can talk to the wall and the wall will talk back to you”.  He went further to say that he often heard people say “If only we had the technology, we could solve world hunger”.  I should mention that at this point the television was showing helicopter gunships flying in the background.  Dr. Postman stated simply, “We have the technology, we don’t have the social will”.

There were two threads in this debate that are worth discussion: the pros/cons of any given technology and the question of social will.

With regards to the pros and cons of a technology, let’s look at a current technology that has been in the Toronto news lately: Uber.  Uber is a ridesharing app that connects people needing a ride, with those who have vehicles and are willing to drive (for a fee).  All bookings and payments are made through the app.  Those who speak in favour of it, may describe it as “a hi-tech, decentralized, empowering, environmentally friendly transformative technology combining the best features of taxis, public transit and private cars.“.  As is often the case with the introduction of any new technology, however, there are those who see it as a threat, in this case taxi drivers (and municipal governments who get revenue from the granting of taxi licenses), who mount an argument against it (for instance, the lack of safety standards in Uber vehicles).

This is an example of a technology that is helpful to many (passengers can move more quickly in a city and Uber drivers can to make some extra money), but is also disruptive to some (Uber challenges the current status quo between taxis, limousine services and municipal governments).  It is up to the community as a whole to determine if it is ultimately worth it. Don Tapscott has discussed the challenge of finding a balance in this particular case (see here).

The idea of not having the social will to help one another, is one that should concern us all. This issue was echoed in the movie Hotel Rwanda.  When news of the 1993 massacres was finally broadcast to the world, some thought that the U.S. would immediately respond.  However, Joaquin Phoenix’s character said, “I think people will say ‘Oh, that’s too bad, somebody should do something’, and then go back to eating their dinner”.


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