Technology is not always twinned with progress

Justin Thomas analyses whether technology is a boon or a bane for us

Our technological advancements impact our social lives, says Justin Thomas. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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If nations can be classed as underdeveloped, developing, and developed, can they also be considered overdeveloped? We have a fascination with technology and progress. Perhaps this is hard-wired into the human psyche? The most creative and destructive force in nature is the human mind. Our latest technological tools take the form of thinking machines, artificially intelligent devices that save us time and effort. We now have an app for almost everything. But at what cost?

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, once suggested that: “Our progressiveness, though it may result in a great many delights, piles up an equally gigantic debt, which has to be paid off from time to time in the form of hideous catastrophes”. Today’s computers can rapidly manage large amounts of data. Most of the time they do this without a hitch. But when they do mess up, they mess up spectacularly.

Banking, for example, was an industry quick to embrace the digital revolution and here we can find examples of potentially catastrophic malfunction. In 2013, Reggie Theus, a restaurant manager from Texas, became an accidental trillionaire when a banking error left him looking at a balance of $4 trillion (Dh 14tn). In 2015, Deutsche Bank misdirected $6 billion to one of its customers. In the same year, an Indian woman became one of the richest women on earth when a banking error resulted in her account being credited with the rupee equivalent of around $1.5bn.

There are many other cases of banking mishaps, and invariably these errors are apologetically attributed to IT failures. The quoted examples are the cases that make the news. I wonder about the errors that go undetected or unreported?

It is not only in industry. Our technological advancements impact our social lives too. As the old joke goes: do you know who really loves smart phones? Divorce lawyers. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that evidence pulled from our digital devices is increasingly featuring in divorce proceedings: from text messages to GPS data. Information technology undoubtedly helps us connect with one and other. However, the ease with which we can now connect has, some argue, made it easier for people to be unfaithful, also ushering in new ways to cheat on each other. It would be tragically ironic if the devices that were meant to connect us, actually lead to an increase in disconnection in the form of divorce.

However, for every tragic tale that implicates technology, there are many more that point the finger at human frailty. After the German Wings disaster, when a co-pilot allegedly crashed a commercial passenger plane into a French mountainside, one of the debates that arose was: human pilot vs autopilot. Developments in artificial intelligence and sensor technology are now raising serious questions about the need for human pilots, lines of inquiry that may resurface following Saturday’s FlyDubai plane crash in Russia.

Also, when there is an app that can do what you do – only faster and cheaper – how will you feel? Technology and unemployment is an old Luddite concern. However, it is becoming more relevant as the rate of our labour-saving technological progress increases in the context of a growing global population.

I’m not against technology at all, but we do need to look critically at what our technology actually helps us achieve. To paraphrase a British politician: if the cannibal now orders his meals online and eats them with titanium cutlery, rather than his hands, is that progress?

Technology is not always synonymous with progress, and progress is best when it’s at the right pace and in the right direction.

For Carl Jung, and many other psychologists, the direction of progress now needs to turn inwards. We need to focus more effort on conquering cruelty, greed, despair and selfishness. We already have lots of apps for the external stuff.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas