A common argument that many technocritics make is that technology is taking away our ability to think for ourselves. YouTube tells us what to watch, Spotify what to listen to, and fitness trackers how to work out. They don’t seem to realize the internal inconsistency of this kind of reasoning. In assuming technology is thinking for us, they imply we cannot think for ourselves.
Baratunde Thurston gave a textbook example of this flawed reasoning on the What Could Go Right? podcast:
I have this smart ring, I wake up in the morning and my wife says, “How’d you sleep?” And I said, “I slept pretty good.” Then I check the app and the ring says I didn’t sleep pretty good. I’m like, correction, apparently, I had a terrible night’s sleep. I need to try harder to sleep tonight ’cause the ring told me I don’t feel the way I feel.
[…] Otherwise we just follow these generated instructions for what to do with every moment of our lives. How to tour a city, what to cook for dinner, where to turn in our vehicles, who to mate with. It’s very optimal.
It’s very optimized. It’s very efficient. It’s also dead.
Luckily, co-host Emma Varvaloucas didn’t buy it. “I think that we’re a little bit more in control about our choices in how much tech is in our lives than what you just described,” she replied.
If your tracker gives readings that don’t match how you feel and your reaction is, “I need to try harder because the ring told me,” then I’m sorry, but you’re to blame, not the tracker. The Oura ring shows you data and its own interpretation. It’s up to you to decide what to do with it.
The ring is not trying to manipulate you. You are taking the path of least resistance and not asking any questions. Maybe they sold you a great heartbeat monitor, not a sleep tracker. Or maybe you truly didn’t sleep as well as you think, but your sleep quality has been so poor recently that your calibration is out of wack.
To assume that people do things just because their tech tells them to is demeaning and patronizing. Technology gives us information and presents us with choices. But we are the ones deciding what to do. Don’t blame the algorithms for the choices you make.
Aside from treating the listener like a child who can’t think for themselves, arguments like Baratunde’s pull us away from the more nuanced conversations we need to have. Because even though big tech can’t force us to do something, it sure as hell knows how to nudge us.
Filter bubbles, echo chambers, social media’s impact on the developing minds of teenagers… those are all real issues. We are not going to solve the if the quality of our thinking goes only as far as assuming that people do things just because their devices say so.
We must refine our worldview regarding technology because a lot depends on technological progress. If we want to thrive, we must keep pushing our technological level forward. Problems are inevitable. The more tools at our disposal, the better because we don’t know what problems might arise tomorrow. However, the more powerful the tool, the bigger the damage it can do if misused. You can have good without the possibility of evil—which is precisely why we need to sharpen our thinking.
We need to address the issues of how technology can be misused. But we can only do that if we move beyond the helpless child strawman arguments and begin to take ourselves seriously.