In an age of smart tech, discriminate!

In the 2008 Disney/Pixar animated film WALL-E, Planet Earth is a trash-filled wasteland, and the remainder of humanity now cruises through space on a large ship. Day after day, they lay back in gliding seats, relying entirely on robots and artificial intelligence systems to feed, entertain, and guide them in a comfortable, controlled resort environment. Far-fetched as it may be, I can’t help picture those images when I think of today’s smart technology and what the future may hold.

Let’s look at what’s going on in the kitchen these days. Catering to those who don’t yet have basic cooking skills instead of making products that compliment those who do, American appliance brand Whirlpool has a “smart” oven that features a display doubling as a window that advises you on best practices, sorts your recipes based on how much time you have, and includes an internal camera so you can zoom in on your food instead of, well, just opening the oven door. Gone would be the days of learning by trial and error, the messy, memorable moments in the kitchen with Mommy or Daddy. Here’s a machine that can do much of your culinary thinking for you.

Whirlpool is far from alone in the quest to automate your home, as evidenced by the gadgets on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Every appliance and system you can imagine for your home now comes in smart varieties, including refrigerators, thermostats, lights, entertainment, and even toilets. Consider Kohler’s latest john Numi. You can speak to it! It will flush on command, warm your posterior, play music and news, and you can even control it from an app on your phone. All things you used to do just fine yourself. Reminds me of the punchline some add to those vague fortune cookie predictions: “you will experience great success…in the bathroom!”

As we consider technological advances in our lives, it can get hard to determine objectively whether a given piece of technology has a net positive or negative influence on our lives and our humanity. After all, you could make the argument that a talking toilet is just what you need, especially if you are physically handicapped. There’s a good argument for teaching children to wash dishes by hand, but does that mean we toss the dishwasher out? What about our cars? They get us places a lot faster, and yet they are complex systems we have to pay specialists to fix. They can also be dangerous. But does it mean we sell our car and walk or bike everywhere? And what of the microwave, the smart watch, or Google Maps?

The point is that we all need to make our own choices about the tech we use every day. That requires being aware of that technology’s effect on your life and your humanity before you decide to buy it. If you value your abilities to think, learn, create, move, communicate, and reason (and those of your loved ones), you’ll want to guard those abilities, properly maintain them, and prevent anything from hampering your ability to use them. As more and more tech is created offering convenience and efficiency, you’ll have to practice discrimination. This word often has a negative connotation when used these days, but it doesn’t have to. It comes from the Latin discernere, to separate. You have to discern – to separate or make a distinction – between the technology that may positively impact your life and the technology that could negatively impact you. Doing this requires discipline, reflection, and sometimes, sacrifice.

Here’s an example of this thought process applied to a piece of tech. In recent months, I’ve seen ads for robotic lawnmowers. One company claims it will provide “the perfect lawn without the effort!” First, take time to see past the marketing hype. Ask yourself some questions. Do I want a perfect lawn? Does the time it takes for me to mow my lawn have any value? What would a robotic lawnmower do to my work ethic (your general view of the value and importance of work and effort)? What would owning a robotic lawnmower teach my children? My spouse? My neighbors? Does it make sense to own one financially? Reflecting on the answers to these questions will help you determine if a robotic lawnmower – or any other tech device – is something you should buy or pass on.

Some might turn around and laugh at this kind of thinking. “Come on,” they’d say. “We’re not philosophers here! A robotic lawnmower would allow me to get more done around the house. Set it and forget it. I’m sold, where can I buy one?” Hey, I’m not here to tell you how to live your life! That’s your job. I am encouraging you to think before you adopt technology that could impact your life both positively and negatively. The more you practice this thinking, the easier it will become for you, and your confidence to make wise tech choices will also grow.

Want help thinking about a certain piece of tech and whether it would be good or bad to use? Get in touch with me – I’m happy to help out!

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