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Things That Make Us Think

Guest Column Vishal Saxena

Is technology good or is it bad? Personally, I find it detestable. But as soon as I say that, there are a million people who will argue how wrong I am and how good technology is.

Actually, I think the question isn't even relevant. It probably isn't appropriate to attach the connotation of good or bad with technology. Technology simply is; if you don't like it, don't use it. It is something that we have in large part created to make our lives more comfortable. Perhaps the real question, then, is whether comfort good or is it bad. But that sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Nobody would ever ask because the answer is so obvious. So why isn't the value of technology obvious?

One issue is that there is something about technology that makes people uncomfortable: the fact that it lets us cheat. Technology lets us to break one of the fundamental canons of those in power before (and those more experienced than us) - namely, that discipline is good. The best way to do something is the hard way. If something is too easy, people have almost a native abhorrence toward it. Sometimes, technology lets us cheat. One current example is diet pills that that let us gorge on food and not gain weight.

The people who think that the hard way to do something is the best way to do it may be entirely afraid of change. I remember my high school insisted on using log tables when all students had easy access to calculators. The dangerous thing wasn't that we wasted time but the fact that we were conditioned into believing that learning easier ways to do things were cheating.

Perhaps people dislike technology because it makes it easier for us to destroy not only a few people but all of us. People also blame environmental degradation on technology. But if it weren't for technology, we wouldn't have the time to blame these things on anything or anyone. We'd be too busy hiding from predators or foraging for food. Indeed, technology may hold the solutions to problems like war and environmental problems.

There is another important reason technology is good for us: It motivates us and gives us direction. I dislike sameness or repetition. The only way to avoid them is to think of new things. Technology provides us with new things to do and experience.

But in what sense does technology motivate us? It lets us transcend ourselves. What does "transcend oneself" mean? Perhaps, it is the ability to do something that we were previously incapable of doing. The important idea is again killing sameness. Perhaps sameness implies boredom, stagnation, death. Perhaps technology will let us cheat on the biggest form of boredom and stagnation - death itself. Perhaps technology will allow us to become gods.

Ultimately, however, technology gives us the ability to live comfortable lives. Increasing our comfort level is the essence of technology. In that sense, I am not arguing for technology per se. There is nothing holy about technology itself. Technology has, however, given us more time to think and to try new ideas. In that sense, I argue for the importance of openness to ideas and concepts. It sounds easy when Isay it, but putting the idea into practice is pretty hard. Making technology sacred itself implies we may have hardened in our susceptibility to newness.

Progress in technology requires a willingness to set aside prejudices and look at things in a different way. Our interpretation of the world depends on preconceived ideas. So more specifically, what many people need to do is at least try moving slowly toward changing the way they look at things.

The idea of thinking being more important than the technology itself is crucial. When I was younger, I used to think that because I had access to better things or was living in an era that provided better things than, for instance, the era in which my grandfather was my age, I was better. Thus, current fashion or music had to be better than they were in the 1960s. One almost always seemed to be "showing off" one's life in a "better" and advanced age.

Not too long later, Irealized that things like clothing or music don't mean much by themselves. Certain advances are often just trivial. A household car, for example, may use advanced technology by entering or leaving the house using an electronic sensor. But who would argue that that cat is any better than any other cat? The use of technology by itself is not enough or even particularly interesting. It is the thought processes that lead to better technology that are more important.

Technology allows us to change ourselves and our surroundings very quickly and dramatically. Technology is a good way to produce new conditions. But some people are afraid of this pace of change. Perhaps that is because we sometimes have a tendency toward producing a devices and value systems that completely disorient us, like the atomic bomb. But I still prefer to have change. The alternative is simply too stagnant.

Vishal Saxena is a graduate student in mechanical engineering.