17.6. Being Positive by Being Negative
This, then, is the Great Technological Deceit. Confusing the technical and human levels of a problem, we assure ourselves that technical advances will improve the situation, whereas in fact they ensnare us (as long as we are unaware of the problem) ever more securely. There is a kind of rampaging technological aggrandizement at work here, and we have not yet shown, as a society, that we have a clue about managing it.
But do not think there is a neat symmetry between the risks and the benefits of technology, as I have framed them here. The subtleties of risk-benefit analysis notwithstanding, not all risks and benefits can be weighed in the same balance. The nursing home bracelet, by offering safety and convenience, does not elevate our humanity; but the bracelet we thoughtlessly allow to become a shackle helps to destroy our humanity.
That's the way it is with technology. The real benefits we stand to gain the ones that truly elevate us always result from our overcoming technology rather than yielding to its invitations. It requires a wrenching inner effort to make that bracelet an occasion for more humane and loving attention rather than less. We gain from technology by learning how to work against its pull a gain of inestimable value, essential for our future.
The deepest risks of technology, on the other hand, are realized without effort on our part. In fact, this lack of inner effort is itself the realization of the risk. It is the disappearance of ourselves the loss of the power and will to struggle against technology toward higher ends (higher, for example, than convenience).
We can be positive about technology, in other words, only by being negative about it that is, only by recognizing its downward pull and exerting ourselves against this pull. If we do this, the gift that technology holds out for us is the gift of our own highest capacities.
Look at contemporary discussions of technology and you will almost invariably find that this paradox is overlooked. The most common denial of the paradox consists of the attempt to weigh all of technology's pluses and minuses in the same balance. This is to forget that we must stand above technology, and that what we gain through our mastery of it (or lose through our failure of mastery) is of an entirely different order from any supposed goods (or ills) the technology is thought to offer in its own right.