If you haven’t met me, there is something you need to know. I am a relentless optimist. I expect the best of everyone and every situation. I carry a fundamental belief in the rightness of things and trust that the entire universe and everything in it will work in harmony for the ultimate benefit of all. I get frustrated when things don’t travel along the path of my expectations, though they do tend to more or less work themselves out well in the end.
I am an idealist. I get excited and enthusiastic about ideas. I champion change. I welcome things that feel like the future. I’m just made this way. Its how I’m wired. My idealism presses on people’s nerves sometimes. I get on my own nerves sometimes.
I am a technophile. It is a condition that warrants careful observation. I keep friends around me to balance my enthusiasm for New Things. I trust my closest friends to help leaven my enthusiasm with a measured dose of skepticism. This relationship keeps me safe.
I like technology. Technology represents an expression of faith that problems can be solved. That things don’t have to be the way they are. In fact, the change of technology is an humbling reminder that human experience is always changing. We grow as individuals, and we grow as a species. There is, I realize, an element of blind trust that comes with technophilia.
Technophilia assumes that change is always for the best. I sometimes forget that this isn’t necessarily true. I often forget that many people, maybe most people, don’t see things this way.
I think this why I am so fascinated by my own interest in Jeff Bezos’ recent revelation that Amazon is working on a way to deliver products to doorsteps using flying drones. You may have seen the video already. Its all over Twitter and the technology blogs. If not, here it is:
This isn’t a post about the merits of using flying drones to deliver commercial goods. It is about my immediate, unquestioning reaction to that video. Of course, there will be delivery drones dropping off boxes and packages and pizzas in the future. I’m just caught by surprised by the real possibility that it might happen in my lifetime.
These are robots, people. The Star Wars kid in me is completely freaking out.
So, here’s the really funny part. I watch the video and think, “Of course. How wonderful.” I immediately start thinking about the practical uses for my college, which has 9 teaching sites and 3 physical libraries. I start mapping out the possible applications for interlibrary loan, direct to door document delivery. I could send books directly to a faculty member”s office on request with very little wait.
I am thinking these things. I am taking these thoughts very seriously. A part of my brain is actually working out what my library will need to do to be ready for that possibility. This is all happening quickly, immediately, without warning. It is occupying an inordinate amount of my mind on a pretty busy day when there are things that need doing right now. I do those things, but always with a part of me feeling pulled forward toward the idea I can sense but can’t quite glimpse.
I spend a lot of time this way. It is a kind of wakeful dreaming.
The technophile sees the new tool and immediately believes it will be a tool of great value.
I post to Facebook and immediately start reading comments about how dangerous, obnoxious and silly this kind of future might be. People might die. Decapitation is a real concern. Children might get hurt. Birds and power lines and aircraft and on and on. And the comments aren’t wrong. They aren’t mean or spoiling. They are truthful. They are correct. And they come from the dead center of my technophiliac blind spot.
Trusting the idea of technology to improve lives is an expression of faith. It is a kind of blind trust akin to religious dogma. It is a belief that there is an expression of intelligence that wants to make things work better and that everything will be better if we simply trust that intelligence and let it do its job. This is not to equate a fondness for technology with religious faith or create a false opposition between them. It is simply an observation that the technophile (ie, “me”), brings a lot of assumptions and unexamined baggage to the table when faced with something new. It is a reminder that the best response after that initial wash of enthusiasm might be, “Not necessarily so.”
“Not necessarily so” is an excellent mantra for technophiles to embrace. “Not necessarily so” keeps us honest. “Not necessarily so” keeps us vigilant and skeptical and open to the possibility that sometimes things don’t work out for the best and sometimes, often even, there are unintended consequences. One of my best friends often reminds me that the study of human history is pretty much a catalog of unintended consequences.
And so, I take a deep breath and wait a little longer to see how the future plays out. I listen to the friends who see clearly by standing in the middle of my blindspot. And I am grateful.
I am fascinated by the Amazon drone story because it portends a leap toward a vision of the far future I had glimpsed when I was a child. I didn’t expect to see such a leap in my life. And yet, I write this to friends and readers scattered all over the world. I will read your comments on my smartphone, which is a marvel all its own. As William Gibson puts it, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”
And yet another layer of fascination. There is no date by which Bezos expects to have this project ready. It may take years. Why announce it in such dramatic style on the 60 Minutes TV show during the busiest shopping weekend of the year? I think Om Malik has it figured out: to get free advertising, to change the subject away from labor issues and sales tax problems, to force policy decisions. Read “So Why Did Jeff Bezos pre-announce plans for drone-based delivery now?”
Which leads me back to my main point. Technophiles should always take a deep breath and recite, “Not necessarily so.” Technology is a tool. Tools work for the good of the people who have them in their hands. Always. Full stop. No exceptions.
Technology can be used to solve almost any problem we choose, but it cannot solve all problems. Choosing to solve one problem necessarily leaves another problem untackled.