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The world is struggling, and tech can’t fix it

I’ve been having a crisis of confidence in technology. Not because of the harm that people and companies do with technology, but because of all the ways that tech may not matter very much.

Think about some of the big issues that the world is facing, in no particular order: the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, disagreements over the appropriate role of government, a reckoning over systemic racism, inequality in wealth and health and other public safety threats and educational and social safety systems that fail many people.

Technology didn’t cause these problems, nor should we put too much faith that technology can solve them. I worry that when we vilify or glorify what technology and tech companies do, it makes us lose focus on what’s actually important.

Technology might not matter so much overall in tackling the world’s big problems.

Technology might not matter so much overall in tackling the world’s big problems.Credit:Krisztian Bocsi

Technology is part of the solution, perhaps, but mostly we have to find the answers through collective human will and effective action.

It’s not Uber’s fault alone that work can be precarious and many people have trouble making ends meet. Jeff Bezos may be delusional for wishing to move polluting industries to space, but Amazon is also not really responsible for warming the earth. And likewise, if Facebook intervened more in misleading online information, it wouldn’t erase the root causes of Americans’ doubts about vaccines, nor would our children be totally safe if schools had facial recognition cameras.

We can see the ways that humans have deployed technology as tools for good, and we need to do more to mitigate the downsides of technology in our world. But I also fear that we — and me, too — overvalue technology’s importance.

I’ll give you a glimpse into my contradictory feelings about both the power and the impotence of technology.

There have been reflections in the past few days about how the US government misled the public about the devastating effects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 76 years ago.

That kind of official misdirection or denials about war and abuses still happens, but it is more difficult in part because of the prevalence of technology like phone cameras, Facebook and Twitter that enable anyone to show their truth to the world. Thinking about what has changed since World War II made me feel optimistic about the ways that technology has helped empower us with information and a voice.

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