Do we control technology, or does it have control over us?


Floridi, L. (2014). The fourth revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality.Author: Tara DeWorsop, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program

Author: Arturo Pagán, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program

After last semester’s classes on International Communication and Transnational Advocacy Networks, I have been pondering the question of technology’s influence over us.  While it is something that we created which has incredibly facilitated so many facets of our lives, it has also been a major disrupter of our lives and now we need to learn how to unplug and do without technology for the sake of our mental health and well-being. We have seen how in futuristic movies, the technology in AI overcomes human control and takes over – AI finally learns how to learn and evolve and becomes better at this than humans.  However, hasn’t technology already taken over? Are we still really in control? 

Positive Aspects of Technology

Technology has brought so many positive changes to humanity; it is indeed a gift.  I am currently reading the biography of Nyle Dimarco – Deaf Utopia.  It is the story of a deaf man growing up at the time when technology was evolving and facilitating communication for deaf people who were marginalized, discriminated against, but now technology had evolved to allow them to communicate better and with everyone.  Deaf people were the first to use texting with the TTLY equipment and now all non-deaf people use this means to communicate incessantly. 

In the areas of communication, technology has allowed the world to become smaller.  One can travel from one part of the world to another in a day, airline travel has become cheaper and very accessible.  You can now access news and programming in all languages and from all countries in the world. Personal communication is also easier – everyone has access to a cell phone and with that a personal computer and email that they can access 24/7.  Our cell phones are now our phones, cameras, navigators, personal assistants, personal computers and bring banking, planning, shopping, gambling, learning, video conferencing and other functions to our fingertips.  Never have we been able to carry out so many tasks remotely and at all times of the day! 

Negative Aspects of Technology – Technology controlling us

There are many negative aspects of technology which indeed evidence how technology has taken over and control our lives.  Just think about this:  What happens when you accidently leave your phone at home or misplace it?  Your anxiety level increases and you either go back home to get your phone or spend hours to find it.  Why?  Because we can no longer live without our phones.  The fact that you do everything on the phones makes it indispensable – you rely on it to get out of traffic jams, do your online banking, get your meeting reminders, order lunch and groceries, track your fitness and diet goals, read your books, listen to podcasts and do your shopping.  Have you tried taking a break from your phone?  It is harder than you think…. You are programmed to read the news, snoop on your friend on IG, Snap Chat and FB, for some reason you are drawn to watch the nonsense posted on TikTok and if you post something, you obsessively go in every 5 minutes to see how many likes you received.  Writing this piece, I have already checked my email, looked at my IG and FB accounts, checked the news headlines at least 5 times. It’s hard to say technology does not control us if we are so linked to it!  Even in writing this piece, I am dependent on a laptop that has long battery life, working internet access that allows me to get additional information from Google and print drafts wirelessly and while watching international news on my Cibor TV – a service which provides Italian and European Spanish programming.  If my refrigerator stays open, I get alerts on my iWatch, if calls or texts come in, I can respond from my laptop or watch if not near my phone. 

This reliance on technology has also contributed to other unfortunate behaviors.  We cannot go to dinner and enjoy interaction with others without checking our devices.  There are many times when you look over at a table of people eating out and rather than talking to each other, people are interacting with their phones.  While commuting on subways or buses, everyone appears to be engrossed in their own virtual world – rather than engaging in small talk.  In the past a road trip symbolized adventure – you used maps/Atlases/Trip Kits from AAA to chart planned journey and determine places along the way to stop.  Most people do not do this now – as navigation systems have progressed from being rudimentary black and white cd-based maps on your car, to portable navigators you can mount in cars, to know just downloading an App like Waze on your phone!  Not only has the technology progressed, but you get live information on traffic, time to destination, police and speed cameras, cars stopped or roadkill, and even discounts for food along the way.   Not many people can talk about getting stopped and fined for using speed detectors which were illegal in some states.  

What is more disturbing is how so much of what we do now has to be done online or through apps which makes it increasingly difficult for older people to feel like they can function freely without relying on “old-school” services or younger people who are technologically savvy to get some basic things done.  Accessing your bank accounts or even entering your computer or email now not only requires passwords, but some type of second level authentication.  If you should accidently enter the wrong information too many times, you are locked out and getting into your accounts requires a complicated process.   In the early days of COVID, you had to get an appointment for a limited number of vaccines online.  In NYC, there were sites run by NY State, others run by NYC Health and Hospitals, and eventually those run by big pharmacy chains.  You had to know these various sites and go back and forth for days until you got an appointment.  How many older people were capable of doing this?  

Many companies now provide on-line services and have started charging if you need to do transactions in person or by phone.  Anyone who has tried to check account balances by phone or perhaps try to block fraudulent action on their credit cards knows how frustrating it is to have an AI operator ask you many questions and pass you through various phone departments with the option to speak to a real person only as your last hope – and only after holding at times for hours!  Online services and systems are great, if you have the capacity to navigate these systems – if not, you are left to your own devices.  Recently for example, my son’s phone, Gmail and bank account were hacked, and the hackers managed to transfer a significant amount of money out of the account.  Luckily, I had received messages from T-Mobile and Google that made me suspect something was wrong and the hackers even responded to a few text messages I thought my son was receiving!  I had to call T-Mobile for them to freeze the SIM card temporarily, then call Citibank (I was on hold for an hour until I finally got a human to help!) and monitor action online to ensure that the other accounts were untouched.  This was quite a stressful event and eventually the money was recovered – but you can only wonder how many unsuspecting elderly people fall victims to these scams.  This whole event was facilitated by the fact that if someone can hack your phone and email account, they can also override the double authentication safety measures making these useless.  Again, do we really control technology or is it controlling us?

Floridi’s book on the 4th Revolution highlights among many examples of technology dependence the issue of privacy.  The early days of internet access, although it was through dial-up systems like America Online (AOL), allowed people to get any type of information in a safe environment free of judgement, prejudice and restrictions.  This was a monumental era of free surfing and self-exploration.  Unfortunately, the times have caught up and companies, governments and other global players have realized that the amount of data generated from search and usage patterns is a gold-mine.  In 2015, Floridi estimated that enough data was being generated daily to fill all US libraries 8 times over! (Floridi, 2014)While this data can be used for the advancement of knowledge and improvement of human lives, its more lucrative value is for the creation of wealth.  This has come at a price – lack of privacy.   Companies like Google through the use of their search engines and FB, IG, etc. now can guess what a person’s interests are, where they are, who they are linked to, what they shop for and when, how likely they are to buy items advertised on one of the platforms – and tailor adds for products of things they are likely to buy, what types of books are read and movies watched and propose other books or movies you may enjoy, what medical conditions you have, and your curiosities.  Google knows more about people, than they know about themselves and has evolved to contain to predict what you may do, like, buy, etc.!  Therefore, the technology behind the internet went from granting endless freedom to betraying your privacy and worse, becoming a highly addictive drug. 

I can probably write many pages on this subject – but the bottom line is that technology is already controlling us – either directly or indirectly and the intricate world of networked dependencies makes us makes us increasingly dependent, vulnerable and exposed – yet for most people, it is a type of control we are willing to live with!

Floridi, L. (2014). The fourth revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality.

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