Make People More Important than Things

The latest technology craze is AI – artificial intelligence. From ChatGPT to Midjourney, the potential and promise of AI has captured our attention and imagination.

But I have the same concerns about AI as I have with virtual reality and the “Metaverse”, social media, smartphones – media and computer technology in general. We talk a lot about what we gain by embracing these technologies, but we talk too little about what we might be losing or giving up.

I recently finished reading The Good Neighbor, the biography of Fred Rogers. The following excerpt (p. 341-342) echoes my concerns:

Over the years, Fred Rogers grew fearful that the dominance of television and the computer would overwhelm the simple human values he held most dear.

Excerpts from two university speeches he made in midcareer capture his concern: “It really has been very effectively communicated in many circles that computers and their relatives are more clever, are much quicker, make fewer mistakes and are more to be valued than human beings. But without human beings there never would have been a computer or anything else that we call advanced technology. That's something I like to help children remember: that, no matter what the machine may be, it was people who thought it up and made it, and it's people who make it work.

“And as we . . . find ourselves being concerned about the conditions that make life on Earth possible, we will recognize the need to make people more important than things, and we will join hands with young and old alike by putting our dominant energies into developing a sane design for living.”

He even suggested, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, one answer to all this complexity: Turn off the machine. In an appearance at the opening of a Fred Rogers exhibit at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum in 1998, he said, simply: “I've always said the best time for our program is once it's over and the television is turned off.”

Technology has advanced significantly in the twenty years since Fred Rogers died, and his concerns have become only more relevant. It's not the technology itself that is the issue, it is how we use it and what we do with it that matters.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic we relied heavily on video call technology to stay connected and interact with one another safely and over great distances. My siblings, father, and I live in four different states. In 2020 we started doing weekly video calls with one another, and we have enjoyed it so much that we have kept them going ever since.

However, video calls are still a poor substitute for meeting with others in-person. Since 2018, I have worked from home either part of the time or full time. And while I am thankful that video calls exist and allow me to have the flexibility to work from home and meet virtually with my colleagues, I still travel across the country to visit the office every three or four months. Why? Because there is no substitute for in-person interaction and connection. There is a social and cultural aspect to being in the office that is very hard to cultivate with full-remote employees. Some managers of remote workers try to build some social time into virtual meetings. Mine does not. Social interaction with work colleagues fosters a sense of belonging and camaraderie that you just can't get in a 15 minute daily video call.

Likewise, the weekly video calls with dad and siblings are great, but if time and distance weren't an issue, I'd visit them in-person often, too.

#tech #intentionism #LessConvenient