Technology doesn’t ruin lives, it’s the government’s job

While some disapprove of technology as diminishing our quality of life, it’s our political leaders who have truly led us astray, writes Paul Budde.

WE LIVE in turbulent times. There is so much going on, many people feel overwhelmed and lost. One of the reasons cited for these problems is Technology.

I would object to that. In reality, technology is a tool that we can use and yes, we all know that we can use it for the wrong reasons (cars kill people, atomic bombs, killer robots, chemical and biological warfare, etc. .). However, we have learned to live with it and, in general, the results of science, innovation and technology have been positive.

Look at advances in health care, education, and agriculture. Moreover, people love their smartphones, internet, apps and gadgets because they improve their lives. Artificial intelligence and robots can all be used for the better. Sure, some people get addicted or use it for the wrong reasons, but most of them don’t.

So if technology isn’t an issue, why do so many people feel lost? On the material level, one could say that we have never done better. Especially if you compare that with our grandparents and the generations before them.

In my opinion, the problem is emotional and not physical. Physically we are better off but mentally we seem to have problems with the functioning of society.

The complexity of our lives and our world is simply too great for most people in the Western world to comprehend. I think the rest of the world is still too busy with the “physical” side. The mental problem – at least on this level – is primarily a Western problem.

This lack of mental toughness is also very clear in our leadership – they also don’t seem able to steer people in a better direction. Instead, they constantly return to political polarization and populism. This adds to confusion and anxiety, people feel lost and become easy targets for fake news, conspiracies, etc.

Since humans have existed, they have had leaders, whether tribal, communal or national. In reality, maybe 10% are leaders (if so), the rest follow them in one way or another. Even after popular uprising or rebellion, we end up with no more than 10% of (new) leaders. I don’t think that has changed.

Good or bad leaders have narratives and based on that the rest of the population usually follows, whether for better or for worse. So while the problems we face are created by us, with good leaders and good narratives, the “us” will follow. I would say that at least one of our current problems is the lack of good leadership.

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I know I’m on thin ice as people will say, “define the good”. But in a democratic context, most people will be intuitively able to make such judgments. It is different in totalitarian and autocratic societies, where there is not the openness and transparency needed to make informed decisions.

Take climate change. Easily 80% of people see this and want to do something about it, but many governments fail to come up with good, solid narratives to lead us in the right direction. A key reason therefore is that, in all reality, their problem is the protection of vested interests based on capitalist and neoliberal structures.

Of course, we have to balance these issues, but due to polarization most leaders fail to provide a longer-term, more centralized view on how best to do this.

On the narrative, this is now largely in the hands of the media and while the “bad guys” focus on social networks, I think traditional media – especially TV – still have a much bigger impact. Most corporate media relies on selling bad news (again a capitalist issue, as they want to increase their profits) and there is no strong enough counter-narrative from political leaders. Good leaders could produce good narratives that people would support and which, in turn, would temper the negative media narrative.

It would also be nice if we see more activism from our youth. They were in the 1960s and 1970s a driving force between many of the changes that occurred during this period. We need more Greta Thunbergs to shake up our societies.

Technology that changes human nature should be treated with caution

It could be argued that young people have been the real victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, robbing them so far already of two years of the very precious time of being young. We need them to force change on a society that sometimes seems dormant or dominated by the self-interest of baby boomers.

In my opinion, it is completely unrealistic to expect the majority – the more sedentary population – to take the lead or even be part of it. They are simply not leaders but followers. Good, smart, responsible followers, but followers nonetheless. If good leaders with good stories can convince the 80%, we will win the battle. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in some kind of crisis and it will take a long time to recover.

I strongly believe that with democracy, the right leadership, and the right activism, we can use the technological tools we have today to have a very positive influence on the future we face. I find it frustrating that we have the tools that could help good leaders who have a good enough understanding of the complexities to use them to meet the challenges ahead.

We have millions of people in our technology industries who can create, develop and use these tools. We need leadership to deliver new and better stories and focus that positive force on the challenges ahead.

Paul Budde is an Australian freelance columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organization. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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