Thoughts on the limits of technological utility

There is a threshold to using our much-coveted technological advancements. When we cross this line of utility, we find that using the technology no longer becomes useful. In fact, it can often be counterproductive and harmful. While new technologies solve problems, they’re often accompanied by a slew of unintended consequences.

When I impulsively bought a $300 juicer, this small action had an unexpected influence on my subsequent actions. Now I had this bulky device in my kitchen that served as a reminder that I should be buying fruits. I also felt guilty for not using it, as I’d just spent money on it, and fruits aren’t particularly cheap in Japan. On top of that, I had to spend time looking up recipes, cleaning up the mess I made in the kitchen, and taking apart the machine to clean the little pulp-packed pieces.

None of this was enjoyable. I also learned that juicing isn’t that great for you anyways. We evolved eating whole fruits and vegetables, which contains fiber that helps you properly digest the foods, and which can also lower the blood sugar spike. When you blend, you concentrate the sugars, the blender blades shear off the fiber and these benefits go away. I was better off just eating whole fruits and vegetables, and it would have been a lot cheaper and easier.

So, did I have control over the juicer, or did the juicer have control over me? Of course, the juicer wasn’t literally holding me hostage, but it was dictating my actions. That is, by having it in my presence I felt pressured to spend more money to buy fruits and spend time cleaning, even though it wasn’t particularly contributing to my health or saving me time.

I tried to “improve” my life but instead my juicer earned the “Biggest Waste of my Money and Time Of the Year” award. So I threw it on the ground.

While my juicer is a tame story of consumerism gone amuck, what about those technologies that are so deeply ingrained that we rarely question them, like our cars, and the system we’ve built around them? Let’s explore a few examples of the diminishing returns of transportation and the blind spots this has created in our lives.

How fast is too fast?

I had a chance to visit The Gili Islands in Indonesia earlier this year, a chain of beautiful tropical islands lined with white sands, huge turtles and the occasional dolphin. What I loved most about the getaway was that motorized vehicles were completely off limits, both on land and in water — no noisy speedboats, cars or motorbikes. No noise pollution and limited environmental pollution. Your choice was either to walk, ride a bike, or hop on one of the many jingling horse-carriages available.

Considering you could walk across the entire island in an hour, the locals (farmers, waiters, hotel clerks) working on the island would get little benefit from owning cars or motorbikes. Now imagine if cars and motorcycles were suddenly permitted on the island. The minority that could afford vehicles would buy them to get places a little bit faster. In doing so, they would cause traffic, pollution, noise, injuries and inconvenience to the rest of the people on the island. It might even stratify the car owners and non-car owners, creating new social classes on the island and spurring inequality that didn’t exist beforehand.

You may nod your head in agreement that introducing cars would be a bad idea here, but this thought process has little to do with size, and you can see the exact same effects in your everyday life. While it’s easy to believe that we’re gaining more options by having a car, there’s a price we pay for this.

Namely, the speed at which you drive has marginal utility before it starts to become a burden to yourself, others around you and the environment. Philosopher and author Ivan Illich wrote several books on the limits of technology, productivity, and the counterproductivity of many of our institutions. In his study on transportation he found an apparent paradox: the faster we travel on average, the more time we spend traveling.

The threshold for this speed is around 19mph, meaning that once a society has vehicles that can go faster than bikes and horse drawn carriages, the amount of time individuals spend just getting around increases by 200–300 percent. While we are technically able to get places faster, we’ve changed the dynamic with the technology — a car is no longer just a car. Cars turn into a way of life. The ways our cities are built and the way we move changes as a result. It’s just like the purchase of my juicer, except we’re being dictated to a much greater extent.

“People on their feet are more or less equal. People solely dependent on their feet move on the spur of the moment, at three to four miles per hour, in any direction and to any place from which they are not legally or physically barred.

An improvement on this native degree of mobility by new transport technology should be expected to safeguard these values and to add some new ones, such as greater range, time economies, comfort, or more opportunities for the disabled. So far this is not what has happened. Instead, the growth of the transportation industry has everywhere had the reverse effect.”

-Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity

If you want to work at Apple, Google or the Facebook headquarters in California, the company offices are accessible virtually only by car. Their presence has also caused unnecessary traffic jams and most of the tech giants have failed to address the basic needs of maintaining a healthy community with neighboring cities. These multi billion dollar companies very possibly just lack self-awareness, although I wouldn’t say that’s a very good excuse.

Lastly, consider that five hundred years ago you were able to work as farmer or a merchant, support yourself and your family, and not commute to work every day. Transportation was simple (walking/horses) and communities were tight-knit. Medieval peasants enjoyed their afternoon naps, took time eating meals, and were getting more vacation time than you. Today, sure, our average lifespans are longer, but we’re commuting on average two hours per day and working more than ever before. Are we happier and fuller? For many of us, we’re slaving away just to get by.

This begs the question… are we controlling our cars, or are our cars controlling us? While I could get rid of my blender quite easily, it’s a little bit harder to remove the countless miles of highway and the system we’ve setup to “benefit” us.

Skateboards are really starting to sound like a better idea.

Who’s responsibility?

George Hortz invented the first DIY self-driving car in his garage, and while we should applaud his technical achievement, when asked about the moral/ethical implications, he blatantly and quite arrogantly brushed off such concerns because he’s a “tech guy.” I believe this is the wrong attitude, since our actions are never in a silo, and technology is not neutral.

We shape our world with the technologies we introduce, and in doing so we choose what’s important and what we value. When the technology becomes an end in itself, you can expect trouble. When you’ve become enslaved by it, then you know it’s time to take a step back and reassess priorities.

Transportation is just one pertinent example of where we’ve gone too far. Television is another activity that became a mindless excuse to consume and likely did more harm than good. Our phones and social media are the most recent examples, but I feel there’s more hope for us to change in these latter two. Perhaps that’s where we have more control, and where we can be more conscious of our actions.

Lastly, the point is not to throw us back into the Stone Age nor give up core technologies, but to cast some doubt about our own beliefs, question the trade-offs, and be critical of the implications of new technologies. To ask ourselves, “When is technology counterproductive? What’s at stake? Am I controlling technology, or is technology controlling me?”

Recommended Reading

Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity

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