Why don’t we try to understand technology more?

By WILLA GRINSFELDER | April 5, 2018

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 NICOLA ASUNI/CC BY-SA 3.0

Grinsfelder asks that we no longer know how to fix the things around us.

 

I don’t know about you, but I have no idea how my phone works. The same is true of most of the things in my dorm room. The fluorescent light bulbs, this computer that I’m typing on, the way my books are bound and manufactured, even the adhesive on the little sticky tabs I use for hanging pictures of cats on my wall. I’m surrounded by a sink of complexity, and yet I’m apathetic. 

I don’t need to know how any of these things work in order to use them in my life. And so I never bother to learn. When my computer breaks or my book comes apart, I’ll take it to the store to get it repaired. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll buy a new one. No big deal. That’s capitalism. 

But lately it seems like the number of things that I don’t understand has been increasing exponentially. I’m going to play the old lady here for a second and look back at the time before electricity was used like it is now. People may have had less of an understanding on the molecular or cellular level of how the world worked around them. But they had a pretty general, broad sense of how their own world worked. 

If you drop something, it falls. If you drop something heavy, it falls at the same speed but hurts more when it hits your toe. To plow a field, have a horse pull stuff through the ground. To make a building, stack bricks on top of each other. If something breaks, try to fix it. 

I think that last point is key. We used to try to fix things — a lot more than we do now. If you’ve ever read the book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

There are beautiful, vivid scenes where one character, Werner Pfennig, reverse engineers a transistor radio, tracing the paths of imaginary electrons with his fingers. If you try to do that with a car radio now, good luck. I’m pretty sure it would shut off as soon as you tried to open it. It’s not as easy to take something apart and try to understand it any more. 

The obscurity of our current technology comes partially from the iterative design process. As we’ve built, redesigned and repurposed ideas, they’ve moved farther and farther from their simple roots. Take the modern car, for example, and compare it to the cars of the 1880s. We use incredible metal composites that are designed to buckle, absorbing the impact of a car crash in ways that never would have been possible with the original open-air designs. We used to crank an engine to start it. Now we just hit a key. 

The iterative design process isn’t bad. We redesigned the steering wheel holder so that when you’re hit in a head-on collision, it doesn’t pierce your chest. We made a frame around the car that was load-bearing, so that when a car rolls, it doesn’t crumple and crush the person inside. The design process has saved tons of lives. It also complicates the devices that we use. 

What happens, then, when humans no longer have to be part of the design process? With new developments in AI, some machines have the ability to teach themselves to complete tasks. Google created AlphaZero AI, a machine that taught itself how to play chess and shogi without any human input. In 50 years, it doesn’t seem impossible that computers would be able to teach themselves how to design a better airplane or build a faster computer, too. 

At that point, the external motivation for understanding the technology we use will be completely obsolete. The only possible reason humans will have for pursuing the pursuit of technical knowledge is their own personal enjoyment — understanding some questions about how the universe works or whatever else piques their interest. Everything will be outsourced to AI or other machines. 

Whenever I think over the idea of a future in which humans are completely obsolete even for their own survival, I get hung up on a question. Does it really matter? Are humans inherently more or less valuable than anything else in the world? Should we be trying to close the gaps in our understanding of both the technology that we’re using and the development of new tools and, as a result, regress to how we used to be before modern technology? 

The answer to the last question is obviously no. If we were to do that, we would be knowingly sacrificing lives. We would be giving up cancer research and sustainable energy systems development. All of the things that seem necessary now would have to stop. Our technology development is fueled by our desire to make our lives more comfortable as a species. Yet, then the question becomes: Will our lives be most comfortable if our existence is obsolete?  

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