The Limits of Technology's Power and Human Behavior

I'm an optimist when it comes to the power of technology. We're seeing crazy sorts of advances right now in medical fields and in the advances of 3D printing, which can be applied to a great many disciplines (including medicine). There are certainly many concerns that accompany all of these rapid developments, but the overall idea is that we are moving forward. There is hope in what we can build and what we can change. And yet...

Just because we can create new technology doesn't mean that it's the best model. It doesn't mean that it won't cause more problems going forward. In fact, it doesn't even mean that people are going to use it.

If you're looking for a sobering view of technology and our path as a culture, check out the documentary Surviving Progress from directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. I came across it on Netflix and couldn't even finish it, to be honest. It's such a stark take on where technology can lead. Much of it focuses on environmental issues, but there are also some studies of economics, as well. (There's a section on rapid developments in China that's really fascinating.)

We Don't Want Change

I came across an article recently that seemed to sum up the limits of technology perfectly. Last year, Freakonomics reported on an academic paper in which scholars attempted to change the quality of life of a group in a rural part of India by giving them better cooking stoves. The idea was that pollution would go down, which would help not only the environment but also the health of the families who were doing the cooking.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of "Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves":

The difference between the laboratory and field findings appear to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and usage rates ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

wood burning stove
wood burning stove

Families started using the stoves but did not use them too much, instead preferring what they already had. There was clear, logical evidence that stated that this new stove was better for them, yet the families chose to go with the ways they already knew. (Not like we would ever do something like ignoring pure logic to stick with a way that we're already comfortable with, right?)

The comments section of the article went on to discuss various reasons why this might have worked out this way, as well as describing other technological advances that struggled to catch on. The point is, technology isn't a miraculous cure all on its own.

Making the World a Better Place

I've been thinking a lot lately about various non-profit and charitable organizations. The idealistic part of me wants to see one quick answer to be able to make a major difference and vastly improve life somewhere, but the reality is that it takes a long while to effect change. I should remember that; I've worked for several non-profits in the past. Still, we (at least I) keep hoping there is a magic bullet that can cause a drastic shift.

Instead, it's a daily decision, full of non-glorious moments that, added together, can make a lasting impression on someone. Jeff Shinabarger showed that small stuff really adds up in More or Less. Tom's Shoes has come under criticism on occasion, but the business model is creating change: people in needy countries have shoes who didn't before of this company's efforts.

Yes, we can all do more, whether it's through technology, business, community organization, or whatever creative ideas you may dream up. Don't expect it to happen all at once, but it's worth the effort to try. I've been on the receiving end of charity, and I can't express my gratitude enough to those who took time to invest in me. It's something I'll never forget.

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