John Palen/Voices | How we talk about technology

John Palen/Voices | How we talk about technology


Recently, it was canning time at our house — a skill that goes back generations in both our families.

I was driving home from Curtis Orchard with a bushel of apples for sauce when I learned something new on the radio: I would be at a disadvantage if I looked for work these days, because, being older than 55, I "grew up without technology."

The speaker, a job counselor, had a point. To find a job today, I'd need to improve my computer skills and acquire some new ones. I'd have to work at it.

But "growing up without technology"? That's absurd.

I've been immersed in technology since birth. We all have. There were automobiles and airplanes in 1942. People built houses, gardened and canned vegetables and fruit. They didn't have computers, but they had sophisticated technology — pencils, typewriters, telephones, radio.

Medical technologies helped me enter the world with a life expectancy of 67 years — a good improvement over my father's expectancy at birth of 50.

We got along quite well, really, with the technologies at hand.

That's not to say we'd be better off in all respects if we time-traveled to the past. The pre-digital world had problems, a number of which the digital revolution alleviated. But let's at least talk about technology accurately and with perspective.

Digital technologies are bringing profound change. But so did electrification, steam power, selective breeding of animals and plants, water mills, windmills, controlled fermentation, navigation, stone tools and domesticated fire.

In grad school, I turned in a paper to a professor who taught a course on the Vietnam War. I began by stating that it was a "technological war." "All wars are technological," he wrote in the margin.

"Try again."

The job counselor I heard on the radio didn't have the benefit of that sharp correction. He seemed to suggest that technology, at least the kind that matters, arrived with personal computers. He's not the only one. I hear computers and their offshoots conflated with the whole of technology all the time.

In short, we have a bad case of "presentism," the skewed interpretation of the past in terms of current concepts and values. It's a problem that goes beyond getting history wrong. In a time of rapid innovation, it loads the dice in favor of the new: What's new is better, we say, so let's go there.

But chasing the new begs important questions.

All technologies have their individual advantages and drawbacks. What are those? New technologies tend to have unintended, unforeseen and even unforeseeable consequences. What are the risks of that ignorance? New technologies replace older skills. It's rare, but a few airplanes have crashed because pilots were so accustomed to a computerized flight deck that they fumbled a manual response to an emergency.

Closer to everyday experience, fewer people these days can repair their own car on blocks in the garage, build their own furniture, set their own times and F-stops on a camera, or bake a cake from scratch. When skills like these are lost, a measure of knowledge and autonomy is lost, too, and that's a problem.

Yes, I write on a laptop, which I love and depend on for information about the world, contact with friends and relatives, and my favorite crossword puzzles. But when the laptop goes wonky and shutdown-restart doesn't work, I get quickly out of my depth. It's complicated. It's opaque and maddeningly jargonish. It's a newspaper I can't open, a letter I can't put a stamp on, a pencil I can't sharpen.

And that's my point.

John Palen's Ph.D. from Michigan State University included a cognate in Science, Technology and Society Studies. A retired journalist, he lives in Urbana.