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Technology makes us more who we are

Part of my Unwriting series.

“Technology isn’t inherently good or evil, it’s just a tool.” We’ve all heard this before. We may quibble over individual cases, but most of us agree that it has at least a core of truth. I wonder if there’s a related corollary: “Technology doesn’t change us, it just makes us more who we already are.”

We have it pretty good today. Centuries ago, in the bad old days, life was tough. You worked long hours of manual labor, cared for sick children for months at a time (and counted your blessings if they survived), and dodged tax collectors and priests and soldiers who made your life miserable. When by some miracle you had a free minute, you sewed new clothes to replace the ones that were literally crumbling off of your back. Your time was not your own.

Life is better now. It’s not distributed equally – many people are still in awful straits – but average quality of life and disposable time and income have skyrocketed, thanks largely to two things: trade and technology.

Matt Ridley argues for trade better than I ever could. As for technology, “better living through science” may be just as familar as “technology is just a tool.” During the early 20th century, periodicals like Good Housekeeping stuffed their pages with ads for labor-saving devices, promising to transform overtaxed housewives’ chores with the press of a button.

Sure, they overpromised a bit. We still have to wash clothes and dishes, clean around the house, and fix things when they break. Regardless, those devices and services delivered some serious time savings. We may spend more and more of it working – especially since the norm has changed from one working parent to two – but that’s often by choice, since many of us are salaried and don’t earn overtime.

What’s more, beyond free time, technology also freed up mental energy that we would have otherwise spent on those needs. What do we do with those extra brain cycles? We read books, play sports, watch movies, play music, debate politics, cultivate friendships, and write rambling blog posts like this.

Those activities are all pretty damn high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, way higher than fighting off yet another disease or sewing yet another pair of pants. More to the point, they’re things we choose to do, not things we have to do to survive, so they’re much better reflections of our personalities.

I think about this every time I post an essay here, or start a new hobby, or jump through ridiculous hoops so I can keep being weird about privacy. I’m incredibly grateful that my standard of life (and yours, if you’re reading this) allows me to pursue the things that make me who I am. I suspect I have technology to thank.

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