Commentary: We're Losing to Technology

Do we create technology to serve our needs or technology dictates what we need? (Antara Photo/Agus Bebeng)

By : Dewi Safitri | on 8:11 PM September 13, 2016
Category : Opinion, Commentary

It was a pleasant evening with friends enjoying a lecture and an acoustic performance in one of Jakarta's theaters. In the dimmed light, with melancholic music in the background, a man sat in the front row, pulled out his mobile phone and started swiping the screen over and over. He seemed oblivious that his brightly-lit touchscreen was blinding others up to two rows behind him. He was apparently too busy checking his social media account(s).

I felt like pulling out my own phone and throwing it on the man's head. How can an adult not understand the simple rules of staying silent and focusing on the stage during a performance?

Before long, I realized the poor guy was not to blame. The culprit was technology that offers virtual human connections. Once engrossed in the social media, we lose manners and disobey the basic social norms. Consequences are minor. He can't help it, just like most of us.

Do we still have the decency to eat a meal without checking the phone every 15 minutes? Don't we all happen to oversleep because the alarm clock failed to ring at the designated time? Or to be lost without the guidance of Google Maps?

And now there's also Pokémon Go. In the United Kingdom alone, 290 people were involved in accidents and bizarre incidents in the first month after the official launch of the game in August.

Brianna Daley and her husband Brent from Pinal County, Arizona, were arrested for leaving their two-year old child alone at home while they went out to hunt pocket monsters. In Russia, Ruslan Sokolovsky reportedly awaits trial for mocking religious beliefs as he was caught hunting Pokémon in at a church in Yekaterinburg.

Are people oblivious to the fact that their lives have been directed by monsters and machines?  Giving up our private information to apps and websites is one thing, but having ourselves attached to cell phones and being powerless without them shows a complete submission. Are we losing control over our lives?

One of the primary issues in the study of science, technology and society is the debate over control: does society set the course of technology or is it the other way around? Do we create technology to serve our needs or does technology dictate what we need? Indeed, technology has never been an angelic innovation serving solely the cause of humanity. When the Allied forces joined to fight the Nazis in the 1940s, their technological solution was the Manhattan Project — a lab that created the world's first atomic bomb. It did bring the Nazis and Japan to their knees, but it killed hundreds of thousands and razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rather than learn from the horrific history, the ever-advancing defense technology has borne an impetus for countries to stockpile on weaponry. Countries are easily tricked into wars, Syria is the latest example – when diplomacy is too hard, technology is all too ready to step in and cause more destruction and suffering.

It is perhaps right to describe this as an instance of technology determining the course of geopolitics. Otherwise, what's the point of the accurate ballistic missiles and drone technology if not to launch new wars?

While the eradication of malaria and dengue fever from the face of earth may take many more years, defense technology seems to grow faster and stays profitable (the United States alone is predicted to export weapons and military technology worth $24.4 billion this year). Wars are not going to stop anytime soon.

Unfortunately, those who may be spared from wars are not necessarily immune to other forms of technological determination either. Time Magazine recently published a long unpleasant read on the internet, online trolls and the "culture of hate."

Nice and decent people in real life turn into trolls, spew hate, spy, bully and produce fear once they go online.

The memory from the painful presidential election two years ago is still fresh. The internet age has thus given Indonesia what philosopher and astronomer Karlina Leksono dubbed "a culture of comments" — in a negative sense.

But the next cycle of technological determination is already at our doorsteps. Sports equipment manufacturer Adidas has announced the opening of its first robotic factory in Germany, ready to kick off next year.

Less heartening updates come from the International Labor Organization, which predicts that nine million jobs in South East Asia will be lost to "sewbots." This will hit workers in garment industry, who already suffer from the lower demand in the North American and European markets.

Are we ready to face the shift? Well, the technology is.

Dewi Safitri studied science technology in society at University College in London and currently works for CNN Indonesia.

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