The 23rd Annual Great American Think-Off was held on Saturday, June 13th, 2015 at the James Mann Center for the Performing Arts in New York Mills. The first round featured David Lapakko and David Eckel both arguing for the side of “Technology Frees Us”. Lapakko prevailed over Eckel to advance to the final round. In the second round, Paul Terry and Marsh Muirhead each argued their points for the side of “Technology Traps Us”. Terry garnered more votes than Muirhead to remain in the debate. In the final round, the audience voted that “Technology Frees Us” and crowned David Lapakko the 2015 Greatest American Thinker. What follows is the full text of the four winning essays.
The fault is not in our technology but in ourselves.
Sprawled in a window-sculpted splash of sunshine, my dog watches “Computer” and me stare at each other for yet another day. She’s ready to leap to my defense because, despite a lack of overtly threatening signs, “Computer” must be laying a trap. Why else would I be eyeing him so warily? And why else would my dog and I be stuck inside on such a splendid spring day after a brutal winter we thought might never end
I would explain to her that, appearances to the contrary, “Computer” and his technological pack mates are immensely freeing because they radically expand my choices and capabilities. Were they traps, they would limit my choices.
It’s not simply that I can do things faster and better with technology than I could barehanded; I can do things otherwise impossible. Flying comes to mind. Not just sitting inside a pressurized tube being flown, but flying as it was meant to be, touching the open air while soaring 2000 feet over Kitty Hawk in an ultralight.
Technology is so pervasive, so intertwined with human existence that we can scarcely imagine life without it. Consider that without fire we probably wouldn’t have made it to caveman. We would still be in the trees, trapped by the limitations of our bodies, naked and virtually defenseless against Nature, lacking the tools our minds have thought to devise and have guided our hands to craft.
But could technology also be entrapping, limiting our choices to such a degree (and in ways we might not realize) that the undeniable freedom that human ingenuity has unlocked is somehow outweighed?
We do seem habituated, if not addicted, to technology. We tend to reach for a calculator when confronted with simple multiplication, forgetting to figure in our heads. We drive short distances rather than walking. Instead of reading or discussing philosophy, we turn on TV and value entertainment over information, as a child might choose ice cream and candy over fruit and vegetables. What happens when all the stores that offer healthy food go out of business for lack of customers, and only stores that stock sugar and junk food remain? Aren’t we trapped because our options in nutrition (mental as well as physical) are curtailed? True, but was it technology that did it, or the preponderance of our own poor choices?
As an unabashed advocate for technology, what concerns me nevertheless is that it might make things too easy for our species, still learning to live up to our self-appointed name, “man the wise”. When confronted with a task that is difficult or that requires considerable effort we are more likely to question in advance whether the result of that effort would be worthwhile, and perhaps to choose not to do it. Other people (or authorities) might think twice before asking us to do something expensive of time, effort and resources, knowing the more trouble they impose the more we might ask of them in return. Enter technology: by making tasks easier and less expensive to do, technology may increase our load of tasks that have minimal value, leading us to fritter life away in their mindless execution.
Technology can also encourage us to think short term, perhaps choosing to burn a gallon of gasoline to get a gallon of milk that we would already have if we had simply made a grocery list. It can make the immediate cost of a gallon of gasoline so low that if we fail to take into account all of the indirect costs (such as environmental wear and tear, that if included would almost certainly curtail casual use), we may create an insurmountable problem for future generations.
But are these the failure and fault of technology, or of ourselves?
As long as we have freedom of choice, it is up to us to make wise and reasoned ones. Blaming technology for our own poor decisions, even as we eagerly accept the benefits and possibilities that technology bestows, seems disingenuous. It is not technology’s responsibility to make sure that each of the vast array of choices it makes possible is in our best interests. When we surrender that responsibility, whether to technology or another force, we will have trapped ourselves.
Yet my dog has a point. We should be out embracing this glorious day, walking the woods and taking in its simple pleasures, a choice that, thankfully, I am free to make. Turning off “Computer”, I turn to beckon her. She’s already at the door.
Imagine a world without technology.
Well, if you lived in the 1800s, you really wouldn’t have to. When it came time to plow the fields, you’d hook your rig up to a horse and spend an entire week doing what a motorized tractor can now do in one day or less.
When mealtime approached, you’d trek to the garden and find what was available; if you didn’t plant it, or it wasn’t in season, you were stuck with what you had. Then you might need to kill, pluck, and eviscerate the chicken (yuck), split some logs, gather the wood, and put it in the stove. It was all a real production. But today, a quick trip to the local supermarket, along with a microwave oven, might put dinner on the table in under thirty minutes.
If you wanted to travel, you’d hitch up the wagon and spend two or three days doing what a Ford Focus or Honda Civic can do in two or three hours. If you yearned to communicate with a faraway friend, you’d painstakingly write a letter by hand and hope the Pony Express or a train could get it there eventually. Now you can do the same thing instantaneously in a couple of clicks. If that is not freeing, what is?
Of course, technology is not without its perils. Critics claim adopting new technologies is a sort of Faustian bargain—a deal with the devil. In order to have that tractor, you must slave away to pay for it, and you must be prepared for it to break down, and to fix it. Some microwave users can’t cook anything that isn’t “prepared”—at best, such people are good at “warming.” As for computers, I think we all realize we can become a slave to our screens; for some, a smart phone is the electronic equivalent of heroin.
Still, with respect to technology and freedom, we have to consider what freedom actually is. I would define it quite simply: to have options. If you ask rich people about the main virtue of money, they will often tell you it’s not that they can buy more things, but that financial wealth gives them more choices. So too with technology. One can become “trapped” by it, but technology opens up so many more possibilities that it can only be considered freeing compared to the alternative.
We should be careful not to over-romanticize the Good Old Days. A couple years ago our dishwasher died, and I almost looked forward to the visceral experience of independence from technology, imagining the warm suds flowing over my hands as I scrubbed each plate and utensil clean. Trust me on this: that warm glow faded rather quickly; I realized how comforting it is to let a machine do the work—especially when you have a half dozen guests! Or, as a student back in the archaic Typewriter Era, I often used scissors and tape to rearrange a paper. Younger folks do not fully appreciate why the pull-down menus on computers include the commands called “cut” and “paste.” And they certainly do not appreciate that there was a time—hard as it may be to believe–that if you had even one small error on a page, you felt duty-bound to re-type the entire sheet to make it look right. That is my definition of feeling trapped.
Indeed, it is the lack of technology that can trap us far more than its presence. In the old days, people weren’t easily able to see the world. Their friends were commonly within spitting distance, and they spent an inordinate amount of time simply taking care of the basics in life. On the other hand, when I graduated from college, I realized that I had never been out of the U.S. and promptly booked a flight to Spain. I spent seven weeks wandering around Europe with a Eurail pass and a frame backpack. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life!
Even the Great American Think-Off has technology to thank. Essays can be submitted quickly on-line. Finalists can come from Tennessee or North Carolina and be back home the next day. And hundreds of people can make their way to New York Mills almost effortlessly to witness the event. Yes, technology can be incredibly aggravating, but compared to the alternative, it is what enables us to do more of what we dream to do, and with immensely greater ease. That’s what I would call freedom.
Recently, the checkout person at the office supply store declared that my check could not be accepted. She explained that their new scanning service detected a problem. I pointed out the thousands of dollars I spent there, my perfect credit rating, the business I had maintained since before she was born. No dice. I chatted with the manager. He suggested I call the credit verification service. I called. India. A nice lady, but she could not reveal the threat their algorithm had discovered lurking in my data. I returned to the store, told the manager I’d take my business elsewhere, and asked him if he was concerned that there might be something wrong with their screening service. Company policy, he said, and sent me on my way.
I once spent two days trying to restore my long distance phone service that had been silenced due to a “problem” with my account. After pressing a dozen numbers, a live person came on the line, noted that my account was fine, but that service could not be restored due a problem with my account. She could not ascertain the problem, and asked if there was anything else she could help me with. I can’t repeat the conversations that followed.
You could tell such stories – we could go on and on, these just the more trivial and annoying tales that demonstrate the ways we are trapped, scammed, and otherwise dehumanized by technology, the engine of rampant consumerism, serving the interests of those for whom profit, influence, and control is the goal without regard to the greater good of the earth or its people. Although technology has made stunning advances in information availability, transfer, and storage, it has produced an almost hallucinatory barrage of marketing and advertising. The latest iPhone release draws another line around the block at the Apple store.
Our personal devices are addictive, distracting, dangerous and remove us from the practical and beautiful world around us. More than half the serious accidents involving teen drivers are the result of distraction by personal device. I recently observed a table of spring formal teens at a restaurant—all of them looking into their screens while they waited for their food. Of what will memories be made in their future? Our devices remove us from the natural world, dull our animal skills of sensing distance, weather, spatial relationships, hearing the birds. We no longer need to spell, park a car, read a map, or estimate the temperature by sticking our head out the window.
Social media creates relationships more virtual than real, one social observer calling Facebook the “alter of loneliness.” And whether for personal or business activity, our connectedness to everything has facilitated corporate espionage, focused marketing, hacking, predatory sexting. Our devices can report our every movement to employers, insurance companies, and the government.
Technology races ahead of our ability to manage the problems it creates, especially when political and economic motives drive industry and commerce.
The latest drug—despite an impressive list of side-effects—has everyone calling the doctor to ask if this one is “right for them.” Drugs have eradicated or ameliorated the worst and most widespread diseases, but profits dictate availability; the rarer diseases remain neglected in research. The rush to sell, and the public’s demands, have led to side effects, birth defects, addiction and products to combat deficient eyelashes, less than full lips, impotence in the elderly, and compulsive gambling. Wanting to live comfortably, beautifully, and forever comes at great cost. Recall the disaster of the drug Thalidomide in the 50s: thousands of still births, thousands of severely deformed infants, the collusion of government and drug companies engaged in a cover-up revealed later.
Examples from industry are legion—names and places recalling the horrors: Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Love Canal, Bhopal, India, the Erin Brockovich crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric, the Minamata mercury poisoning of thousands in Japan, the near extinction of the bald eagle due to the use of DDT. Surely fracking with its own surprises will make this list. And there is no better example than the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, launching an arms race that continues to the present hour.
Since discovering fire and inventing the wheel, we have sought a hotter fire, a rounder wheel, burning and running over ourselves again and again, no happier, no more secure than when chased by the tiger, freezing in our cave.
I stopped dead in my tracks. After hours of solo trekking I came over a crest and was surprised to see a lake. I must have crossed into Mozambique! You do NOT hike off trail near this border. Why? Landmines! At that time, 500 minefields and 100,000 IED’s had yet to be cleared. I shouted at myself: “You are SUCH an idiot!”
A trap is something you fall into and don’t know how to get out of. I was all in. The deadly technology surrounding me was entirely benign, that is, unless I took a misstep. Choose the wrong direction and I’d be missing an arm or leg like so many of the locals I saw days before in the bombed out town of Beira.
Being surrounded by life altering technology has never seemed as scary as it did that day, but trekking into today’s semi-conductive landscapes can detonate trillions of treacherous traps every nano-second. Frazzled parents checking emails miss their kids’ soccer goals and ballet leaps. Boom! Stanford researchers showed girls multi-tasking online have fewer and poorer quality friendships. UCLA showed our texting kids are losing their ability to interpret facial emotions. Boom! 185 million active gamers in the US are averaging 22 hours a week in virtual worlds of wars and grand theft they find more rewarding than reality. Equivalent time investments could produce fluency in any language or a virtuoso performance on any instrument. Instead of the promise that tech would lead to a culture of leisure for the working class, it has produced a cortisol induced Karosi, the Japanese word for death by overwork. Boom, boom, boom!
Defenders of technology point to how twitter feeds spawned the Arab Uprising but they ignore sociologists who study how the speed behind digital activism only creates weak ties. Sustainable movements that free us depend on the hard work of personal connectivity. Slow organizing, the kind that builds relationships, is what it takes to gain consensus and, as one sociologist described it, to learn how to “navigate the minefields of political danger.”
Tech freedom proponents say that computers can improve behaviors such as reducing speeding by monitoring drivers. But this is the same Orwellian web that enables cyber bullying, hacking, stalking and sex trafficking. Cyborgs watch what we watch and log what we buy with the single aim of luring us into wanting more.
As a Delta “million-miler” I travel most weeks with an unhappy herd in an ozone depleting tube we can no longer do business without. “Flight attendants; doors for departure, cross check and all call.” With that, we are lawfully sealed in. Just a decade ago it was common to greet the person you would rub shoulders with and occasionally even chat. Today, faces are frozen to screens and ears are guarded by “Quiet Comfort” headphones.
The day I read this year’s “Think Off” question, I decided to rattle the trap. I was traveling First Class where we gorge on HDMI portion sizes twice that of those cattle back in coach. When the attendant declared it was time to switch devices to airplane mode, I turned and said hello. Time flew by as I learned my seat mate was a part of the health care team that operated on Governor George Wallace for five hours after an assassin shot him five times. They could not dislodge the bullet in Wallace’s spine which left the then front running Presidential nominee paralyzed for life. My seat mate seemed pleased for the chance to explain how this likely altered the course of segregation politics.
Some trappings of tech are not hard to escape but few try. Why? We’re losing track of the way back and, more urgently, we’re not asking if the way ahead is strewn with even more beguiling booms per step. Once we are literally wearing our computers, a makeover already in full swing, the daily influence of computers becomes as subtle as it is powerful. Some call this deceit “invisibilia.” Computers that schedule us and synthesize our information will increasingly change our capacity to think. BIG boom!
That day on the Mozambique border, I decided to retrace my steps. I tread breathlessly for miles as if over burning coals. Could we escape our dependence on the grid? Not according to geo-scientists who have run simulations of prolonged power outages in cities. It always ends in anarchy, then starvation, except for fully armed, smartly stocked survivalists or for throw back farmers who wall off their land. Technology is a trap. We’re all in. Log off? Boom!