Technology ruins lives, U of T prof says

Technology has always ruined the lives of modern people but it’s likely a good thing. That was the general takeaway one could assume after the latest Café Scientifique event held yesterday afternoon (Nov. 21) at The Rivoli (334 Queen St. W).

The U of T's Bryan Karney (left) and Mark Federman.

It’s always interesting when a room full of ‘egg-shaped heads’ gather to debate something and this opportunity was no different. Sponsored and hosted by the Ontario Science Centre for the last four and a half years, Café Scientifique is a monthly free event held in the backroom of the Riv where “anyone can join discussions that explore the latest ideas in science and technology.”

This month’s event was jam-packed to hear two University of Toronto professors discuss whether or not technology is ruining our lives.

“In terms of the question, ‘is technology ruining our lives?’ My answer is unequivocally ‘yes’ and it’s about bloody time,” said Mark Federman, doctoral researcher at OISE, U of T. “Understand that fundamentally, and to the surprise of many people in this Internet Age, history did not begin 50 or 100 years ago.

“Go back about 3,000 years . . . technology has always ruined lives. It has ruined the privileged, it has ruined the power; it has ruined the structures of knowledge, government, and commerce.”

Whenever a new technology grabs society by the horns, it fundamentally changes the way in which we engage with one another he continued, citing the introduction of the alphabet as an example.

Federman took it further, adding anyone over the age of 26 is “finished” because Samuel B. Morse invented the electric telepgraph in the early 1840s. “That began the process of ruining the lives of modern people . . . we are transitioning to a world where we are ubiquitously connected and always connected to a wide variety of devices . . . we’re feeling the effects of pervasive proximity.”

In the world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity (call it UCAPP for short), lives are being ruined; older folks at least. The UCAPP generation is plotting.

“The UCAPP generation are collaboratively constructing their identity on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs, on instant messaging,” he said. “I blog, I post, I tweet, therefore I am . . . technology has already ruined the lives of modern people.”

Bryan Karney, prof., department of civil engineering, environmental section, U of T, said technology has accomplished a great deal of good things but there’s a tremendous ambiguity about what it has achieved.

“Our technologies have become so amplified in terms of its ability to change the world that the consequences are beyond most of our comprehension,” he said. “We tend to view technology as something that’s external to us . . . when we change technology we change the way we are wired to the world.”

With respect to the impact of technology on the natural world, Karney said the results are much less ambiguous. Take the role of irrigation technologies in agriculture; on the positive side of things we can transform desert land into lush, productive soil. On the negative, the vice-versa occurs.

One thing Karney notices increasingly among U of T graduates, the very people creating technology he said, is they view the world from a consumer’s perspective. “The reality of the situation, and it’s been proven time and again in numerous contexts, is that small-scale rationality sometimes results in profound irrationality.”

The question to ask ourselves, he said, is in which way does technology enrich or impoverish our lives? ”

After a brief intermission, the two profs returned to engage the audience head-on and an interesting conversation ensued. However, you knew it was only a question of time before one figure emerged from the shadows as a harbinger of doom: “the machines will one day overtake the human race”. That drew a few stifled giggles and caused eyeballs to roll upwards, but no matter.

Karney’s question lingers: in which ways do you think technology enriches or impoverishes our lives?


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One Response to Technology ruins lives, U of T prof says

  1. L'Adrian says:

    Luddites of the world unite! Dyslexics of the world untie!
    I believe that the statement ‘technology has improved lives’ is beyond question. But this is not a net equation. While the majority of lives have been improved there is no doubt that many have also been ruined. While we laugh now at the luddite movement at the time it was a very rational response to an enormous threat to poeple’s livelihood. Their lives were ruined by technology just as industrialisation ruined the lives of those who were forced to urbanise and work in the industrial factories of the day. But if we were given the chance would anyone seriously change the way things evolved for the sake of the luddites or the first two generations who worked in horrific factory conditions? There was a greater good brought by technology just as the interwebs and today’s newfangled toys will bring a greater good at a cost to the older generations.

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