How Technology Transforms Human Experience

Wearable technology.  Sensors everywhere.  The cloud. We now have the power to monitor, in real time, just about anything and everything, giving rise to the trend known as the quantified self.  We can optimize every aspect of our existence—from our health, to how we manage our time, to various aspects of our family lives.

This excites many, but to be honest, it horrifies me.  I’m obsessive enough already.  The last thing I need in my life is a machine that will constantly remind me about my questionable lifestyle choices and bad habits.  My wife performs that function more than adaquately.

What interests me is not the quantified self, but the qualified self—technology that allows me to expand my range of experiences.  Yes, these are qualified experiences and not the real thing, but they are experiences nonetheless and I am better for having them.  What’s more, I can share these experiences with others, encoding myself into their lives as they have into mine.  The future of technology, ironically, is all too human.

A Personal Story

When I first arrived in Poland in 1997, I knew nothing of the country, its people or the language.  I found myself spending many nights alone in my small flat just outside the walls of Warsaw’s Old Town, bereft of human contact and far away from all the things I had known and understood.  It was exciting being in Eastern Europe in the late 90’s, but it was lonely too.

So I came up with a strategy.  My bank allowed me to call them collect, so although I had little money in those days, I would dial them up, ask for my balance—which was probably something like $8.34— and try to strike up a conversation.  Sometimes I was successful and, although the discourse lacked the excitement and pizzazz of a Manhattan cocktail party or a Silicon Valley meetup, it served my purposes to a certain extent.

I spent a total of 15 years overseas, lived and worked in a variety of countries, made many wonderful friends and learned an enormous amount about different cultures, languages and hard truths about the world.  But what struck me most was how digital communication changed my overseas experience.  By the end of my time away, I was no longer isolated, but had become connected through technology.

As Sherry Turkle of MIT has somewhat unhelpfully pointed out, these aren’t the same as face-to-face conversations, but they are a vast improvement over the alternative—which is nothing.  Sure, my daughter’s Skype calls with her grandparents aren’t the stuff of Hallmark movies, but they allow her to maintain a crucial bond, much like Facebook allows me to keep up with the mundane details of friends strewn across the globe.

Lives of Quiet Desperation

Much like me in the early days in Poland, Srinivasa Ramanujan found himself isolated, but for altogether different reasons.  Born into poverty in late 19th century India, he developed an early interest in mathematics despite the dearth of formal schooling available to him.

At some point, he came across a worn out textbook, devoured it and began his own investigations, improvising his own notation due to his lack of formal training.  He worked alone, because no one in his orbit had the faintest idea about what he was doing.

Looking to expand his horizons, he sent a series of letters to great mathematical minds in Great Britain, most of which were probably never opened.  One, however, found its way to G.H. Hardy, who saw what looked like mathematical nonsense and, sensing it was a ruse or a practical joke, promptly threw it in the the trashcan.

Yet throughout the day, something about the letter bothered him.  So he went back to his office, fished it out of the trash and began to study it.  Finding himself flustered, he took it to his long time collaborator, J. E. Littlewood and by midnight, it was clear that they had just stumbled over one of the greatest mathematical minds the world had ever known. Today, scholars still study Ramanujan’s notebooks looking for new insights.

As amazing as the story of Ramanujan is, it is improbable that he was the only one.  For most of history, the great majority of humanity has lived in abject poverty.  If we assume that genius is evenly distributed, we have lost many thousands of would-be Ramanujans. We will never know about their groundbreaking ideas or their medical cures or their life changing inventions.  They perished in squalor.

Uncovering Potential

As an avid student of technology, I’ve read much about the subject.  Some of it has been useful and insightful and some of it less so.  But probably the most valuable thing I’ve come across is Martin Heidegger’s 1954 essay, , in which he explains that technology is not something that we build up as much as it is something that we uncover and put to a specific use.

He gives the example of a hydroelectric dam, which uncovers the energy of the river and puts it to the use of making electricity, just as Facebook did not “build” a social network, but took natural human tendencies and channeled them in a particular way.  After all, we go online not for bits or electrons, but for each other.

In much the same way, technology encodes human experience of those who do the uncovering.  A smartphone, after all, is not just an object, but a living testament to those who made it possible, from Maxwell and to Shannon and Shockley to thousands of others whose names we will never know, but who live on through the advantages we have gained from their efforts.

Of course, very few of us understand the work done on our behalf.  Our experience with it is not direct, but highly qualified and our connection to it is subtle, but it’s still there.

The Hope of Qualified Experience

Technology, like most human things, is a double edged sword, involving gain and loss, merit and demerit.  It connects us to those far away, but distracts us from those that are close by, saves lives in hospitals, but takes them on battlefields.  Most of all, technology is a choice.  We use it for our own purposes.  Some, as I mentioned above, want to monitor their every heartbeat and others, like me, do not.

But most importantly, technology makes us incomparably better off.  Those devices that seem so frivolous in the hands of teenagers are enabling millions of would be Ramanujans to connect and create with their own personal Hardys.  A bright child in sub-Saharan Africa can access the world’s top professors on Coursera, meet people with similar interests through social media and even find gainful employment on Elance.

These are not, of course, “real” experiences, they are qualified ones.  For most, “real life” is not earnest discussions, Ivy League schools and scrumptious lattes, but hunger, disease and an early death.  Out of those billions that are lifted out of the horror and famine of extreme poverty, a few thousand will be truly exceptional and enrich our lives immensely. For the rest of us, the effect will be less dramatic, but still significant.

In the end, the true value of technology is not that it can replace human experience, but mitigate its deficiencies.

– Greg