Motion: This house believes that if the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing



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REBUTTAL

Proposition

Opposition

Looking very far forward, as the opposing house apparently has, one could harbour hope that the maturation of today's "infantile state" of technologies—might, when and if they mature—eventually become more integrative and simplifying than dissipative and complicating. Neither house, however, disagrees with the proposition that technology presently complicates our lives. To argue, as the opposing house does, that "adopting any technology is a conscious act of adding complexity to our lives" is, we are affirmed to note, to agree with and to accept this house's position.

Four points can be made in rebuttal, nonetheless: first, the debate is about today; second, the issue embraces the compounded complexifying effects of all technologies on all our lives; third, given that the rate of change is accelerating, more complexity, rather than less, may well characterise the future; and, fourth, our ability to choose to adopt or not adopt a technology may be constrained by choices others have made already.

Focus on today. As our house understands it, this debate focuses on today's unfulfilled promises. "The future," opined the physicist, Edward Teller, "does not exist. It must be created microsecond by microsecond by every living being and thing in the universe." This house will not argue that today's juvenile technologies might eventually prove to be more simplifying than complicating. There are no data upon which to base that position. Thus, we must respectfully reject the other house's view. Where we find ourselves in our lives today is that technologies today, not the promise of technologies tomorrow, are failing to simplify our lives.

Think beyond the elites. This house also is obliged to take, and does take, a rather catholic view of the meaning and significance of the adjective "our" in arguing that technology has not simplified our lives. Our lives, we argue, are the lives of humankind—all our lives—not just the lives of the well-educated and well-heeled elites in Boston, Beijing, London, Paris or Tokyo. Dalliance in what our house would characterise as simple (in our opening argument we called these "familiar but trivial") elitist technological examples is interesting, but lacks appreciation of the full gravitas of the consequences of technological innovation for all of us today. The technological innovations of elites, invented by and for elites—including short message service (SMS), hip replacements, hearing-aids, the Blackberry, Bluetooth headsets, the iPhone and enhancements in interfaces, data visualisation, network reliability and energy management—have not simplified the majority of humans' lives.

Regardless of the judgments of the elites, it is imperative in this debate, this house believes, that we not ignore the complicating effects of technology on the lives of that larger set of folks in our humankind. Technology has not simplified the lives of the majority of the people on the planet, including, as we have asserted, many of the elites. The elites, a small percentage of the planet's population, depend on an information infrastructure so fragile that any determined attacker easily can render it dysfunctional within hours, for example. Of the majority, technology has complicated their lives, even though many live their lives at the subsistence level.

Consider that the technologies of efficient, technologically advanced logging have not simplified the lives of the Mashco-Piro, Yora, Amahuaca and Yaminahuas tribes in South America. Rising seas have not simplified the lives of the Ghoramara and Carteret islanders. Earth excavation technologies have not simplified the lives of the miners in the Shandong province in China. And the technological innovation of automatic weapons acquired by the Janjaweed ("a man with a gun on a horse") has not simplified the lives of the displaced in Darfur. None of our lives is simplified by the technologies that resulted in nuclear weapons in Pakistan, India, perhaps Israel and perhaps North Korea. Thus, we would argue, the technological innovations the other house cites are interesting, but, for the purposes of this debate, they do not rise quite to the level of significance. To worry about one's handheld device communicating with one's printer, we would argue, is to miss the big and complicated technology-induced worries to which all of us should attend.

Convergences complexify. Much more important, we assert, are the global, convergent and consequential effects of accelerating technological change: industrialisation, electrification, physics, medicine, genetics and the appliances of the information age. These convergences, we assert, complicate all our lives. The opposing house's opening argument, for whatever reason, seemed to miss the elephant in the living room. That issue is profoundly worrisome. technological complexity: that the engines of technological change haves warmed the planet, added pollutants to the atmosphere and oceans, affected life forms by changing the background magnetic field, enabled nuclear weapons and created thousands of chemical compounds that can help or hurt life. It would be difficult to craft arguments that dispute the facts of or the implications of any one of these complexifying effects, let alone the consequences of their convergences.

Others chose for us and we choose for others. Ours is not the House of Ned Ludd, but the facts are that there is much in technological change we did not choose. We can only strive to manage the complexity and consequences. Governments chose nuclear weapons, electrification and data-mining for national security. Businesses chose industrialisation. We are choosing global connectivity, new drugs and vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Just as others chose to unleash the technologies that have complicated our lives, we are making choices that inevitably will affect the lives of those who follow us and complicate their lives in ways we cannot today foresee.

One cannot conclude that the convergent effects—social, environmental, medical, political, economic, legal and psychological—of all the developments that new technologies have inspired or caused have simplified living our lives. Technology, we are forced to conclude and reassert, even after evaluating the other house's learned opening statement, has complicated our lives. This house asserts the facts of the matter. The opposing house seems to hope that technology will deliver a simpler future.


As Richard Szafranski points out, technological advancements have brought about much change for the worse in our world, and these include many pollutant by-products with both visible and invisible consequences. There is an interminable list of all the wrongs set forth by human beings' constant tampering and fidgeting with the workings of the world in the name of curiosity. But were it not for the humans long ago who creatively discovered how to keep a fire going to keep themselves warm—a technology for its time—our ancestors would likely not have made it through many cold winters and we really would not be having this discussion at all.

Or even consider the nature of this online debate, hosted by The Economist and made possible by the internet. Though in the past this technology just provided missile guidance computations for the military, instead today here we are online and thinking together in an open forum of tens of thousands of people. At this very moment and requiring no effort on your part to travel afar or even walk to another room, it would seem technology has simplified your ability to engage in a global discourse. Wouldn't you agree?

Around three years ago I began to tire of technology and all of the associated downsides like daily computer crashes, terrible oil spills in pristine waters killing fish and other wildlife, or the endless pool of email in which we all wade and sometimes come close to drowning in. I am sure you know the general feeling, shared by Mr Szafranski's own accounts. My own journey of concern led me to envisioning the ten "laws of simplicity" as a means to cope and better understand the core issues of modern technology issues today. To give the conclusion upfront, it is really about having the right choices in life. Mr Szafranski is correct in pointing out that there is too much choice in the world. Like many things in life, this problem of having to make decisions is also an opportunity to make choices. By the way, isn't having choice, freedom?

A colleague of mine, Sarah, said that her friend had contracted mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi in New York. Her story immediately conjured up my regular reaction of fright on the airplane to: "Sir, would you like the fish, meat, or vegetarian option?", where I instead hear in my head, "Sir, would you like mercury poisoning, mad cow disease, or genetically engineered crops?" That is until Sarah popped my bubble when she added that her friend religiously ate sushi three or four times per week. I should note that the average Japanese person might have sushi once every two or three weeks, which explains why Tokyo-ites might avoid the hospital by simply heeding the sage wisdom of observing moderation in one's diet. Would it have been better if the sushi restaurant simply refused to serve Sarah's zealous friend and thus made the choice unavailable to him?

By creating legislation to rid the problem of creating situations of over-choice and surplus complexity, can we make the world a simpler place? Probably. And although Mr Szafranski does not pose a particular solution to the issue at hand, legislation is the only likely route to go if the desire is to limit choice and control complexity. But the world is bound to become a boring one if we go that route. Technology is like anything in life. Do too much of it and you pay the consequences. Use it in moderation and the benefits will outweigh the effort you put in.

Having choice is good, especially when the available choices are all excellent ones. The promise of technology to simplify our lives is not met when 35 of the 41 features on Mr Szafranski's hypothetical product are irrelevant and you really only use one or two. If the product is a cellphone, you are likely to use the one feature that works the majority of the time, the phone; on a digital music player you are unlikely to use the calendar function and instead choose its primary function, playing music. Extraneous features are added to many products today because of the natural love for experimentation among the technologists that design these objects. Their conscious play in the marketplace is important, for it challenges the norm of how we think about our products. They are innovating and taking risks, which is what we are taught as a point of pride in the educational system of the US and the first world.

A new generation of designers is emerging that will remove the 35 or so features and replace them with three or four new and excellent capabilities that would not have been invented if it were not for the 35 innovative failures that came before. We live in an open laboratory of ideas today that over the next ten years are being edited for fuller human consumption, with the power of design married to advances in technology. Think of the simplicity of using Google's interface to search any term in the world and you will immediately feel confident about how a well-designed technology experience can work.

We live in an age of unparalleled progress, when creative innovations bear the fruit of advanced experimentation on every corner. You might ask yourself, "Why experiment on me?" The answer is because we live in an exciting era that is still under construction, where you can think of yourself as more of a test pilot than just a regular everyday customer. If you want a hassle-free product, go and buy a pair of old-fashioned cotton socks instead of the latest iPod. The socks may make you feel warmer, but the videos of your family will warm your heart even more.






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