When progress leaves humans behind

I’m reading a good collection of short essays by author Nicholas Carr called Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations. It’s a collection of his best blog posts between 2005 and 2016. What’s nice is it comes in short, highly readable bursts that can be read in 5-10 minutes each. And it covers the advent and rise of the smartphone and all the issues that arise from it in the digital age. It is full of Carr’s witty commentary on issues popping up during these first years of the Age of the Smartphone. As the back cover states: “When we expect technologies–designed for profit–to deliver a paradise of prosperity and convenience, we have forgotten ourselves.” Carr excels at dissecting today’s technologies and analyzing them in light of their influence on humanity.

In one such essay from 2010 titled “The iPad Luddites,” Carr discusses the response by some to Apple’s new iPad computer. He says many have accused Apple of removing the openness and generativity (the capacity for encouraging and abetting creative work) of their machines – taking the “personal” out of the personal computer. He quotes writer Cory Doctorow:

“The original Apple II came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better…Buying an iPad for your kid isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.”

Such is technology’s “inexorable march forward,” says Carr. While progress may be inspired by the hobbyist in his or her garage, it doesn’t tend to share the hobbyist’s ethos, at least not for long. As an innovation get streamlined for mass consumption, it becomes less of an open-source platform that allows for human creativity and more of a tightly controlled, single-purpose system that limits the very creative license that birthed it in the first place. Notes Carr:

“One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the tool’s workings. In its place, we get an abstraction of human agency that represents the general desires of the masses as deciphered, or imposed, by the manufacturer and the marketer…In the end, progress is oblivious to anyone’s beliefs or yearnings. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress…will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about.”

I happen to care deeply about the human mind and our ability to harness it for great individual and collective good. And I know that our mind’s amazing capacity for imagination, creativity, and problem-solving is the very thing that leads to the innovation that drives the march of progress. Wisdom, then, becomes a very important component of progress. The wisdom to use our minds responsibly and for God’s glory and purposes. If we stray from that, from the infallible truth of his Word, we are capable of producing things we may regret in the future. And if sin has the power to traverse generations, I’m sure its cousin foolishness can too, affecting more people than we can realize. Perhaps this is what keeps Silicon Valley’s tech leaders up at night. Or should.

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