Has Technology Spoiled Us?

First published March 15, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“We live in an amazing, amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.” — Louis C.K.

If you want to see “amazing” as it emerges onto our collective radar, your best seat is in front of the TED stage. It’s like a candy store of jaw-dropping technology. This year’s edition was no exception. We saw flying robots, virtual cadavers (to train new surgeons) and enough other techno-goodies to keep the TED audience in a digitally enhanced state of rapture.

One that stood out for me doesn’t exist yet, but Peter Diamandis and his “X Prize” have placed their bets on something called the Qualcomm Tricorder Challenger. Remember the Tricorder from the original “Star Trek “ — a nifty little piece of hardware that could instantly diagnose Star Fleet crew members and other assorted alien life forms? Well, the X Prize foundation thinks we’re at a point where we could turn that particular piece of science fiction into science fact. They’ve put $10 million up for grabs for whoever can create a handheld device that will be “a tool capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases. Metrics for health could include such elements as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. Ultimately, this tool will collect large volumes of data from ongoing measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements.”  The TED community collectively started salivating at the possibilities.

But as most of us had our attention focused on the amazing glimpses of our own cleverness on stage, I couldn’t help scanning the audience around me at TEDActive. Here we were, a group of privileged (and mainly well-to-do) Westerners, and most of us had technology in our hands that would have blown away the TED audience of 2002, just 10 short years ago. Imagine demoing the iPhone or iPad then. A standing “O” would have been guaranteed (not that that’s too stringent a bar to get over at TED).

It made me realizing how fickle we are when it comes to technology. What amazes us today is expected tomorrow and becomes boring the day after. We chew up innovation at an ever-increasing pace and seem to grow annoyed if we’re not constantly fed a diet of “wow.”

I started with a quote from comedian Louis C.K.  In his routine, he talks about a flight he was recently on where the airline announced that you could access WiFi while in the air.  Partway through the flight, the system went down and the flight attendants came on the system and apologized.

The person in the next seat responded with an exasperated, “This is complete B.S.!”

How, wondered C.K., could you possible feel entitled to something you didn’t even know existed five minutes ago?

Look, I love my gadgets as much as the next guy. More, in fact. But at that moment, sitting in that darkened auditorium, I couldn’t help but wonder if our own insatiability for innovation is setting off a technological arms race with social implications we can’t possibly foresee. Are we becoming spoiled idiots? Are we so blinded by our own sense of entitlement that we fail to appreciate just how amazing the world is today? And, more disturbingly, as we underutilizing the tools that technology is giving us, going for the easy distraction rather than the earth-shaking potential of innovation?Do we push technology down the path of least resistance, rather than directing it where it can do the most good for the world, collectively?

Of course, applying technology for the betterment of mankind is right in TED’s wheelhouse, so my fears are not so much aimed at what I saw during TED, but rather to the deluge of technical innovation whose only purpose seems to be to make us fatter, stupider and lazier.

Among the nobler pursuits of innovation is Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s Stirling Water still, a box about the size of a large camping cooler that allows you to “stick a hose into anything that looks wet…and it comes out…as perfect distilled water.” The box can supply a village with 1,000 liters of clean water a day.  Peter Diamandis gave us an update on the still, saying that hopes are high that it will soon go into widespread production, making a massive difference in the health and well-being of many third-world countries. It all sounds great until we remember that Kamen first introduced it on the TED stage in (you guessed it) 2002.

I wonder. If Steve Jobs had teased us with the capabilities of the iPhone in 2002, would we have waited patiently for a decade to get our hands on it? Or would we have whined like a bunch of “spoiled idiots” until it shipped? We’ve now had four version of the iPhone ship since it was introduced give years ago, so I suspect the latter is more likely.

Considering that the majority of the world still can’t get a glass of clean drinking water, it does give one pause for thought, doesn’t it?

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