2017 has seen a severe denting of the technology industry’s reputation. The last month alone has seen the New York Times comparing it to Big Tobacco, in a piece titled ‘How evil is tech?’; Facebook founder Sean Parker boasting about how the company exploits “a vulnerability in human psychology” to snare its users; and the Pope telling the faithful to put down their smartphones (both discussed by Andrew Sullivan, second item).
The companies causing this collapse are few in number. Some, including Facebook and Google, give away their products so they can sell the attention of their users; getting those users addicted is a logical development. (Minimising or ending use of such ‘services’ is our logical response.) Uber pushes transport regulations and corporate ethics to breaking point, and many companies do something similar with tax. A backlash is coming from governments including the UK’s, and it’s hard to imagine the companies concerned getting much sympathy.
But it would be wrong to stain information technology with the actions of a few companies, however large. Earlier this year I wrote about the incredible potential of virtual reality in treating mental illnesses. Last week saw King’s College London and UCL publish research on giving a virtual computerised face to people’s internal schizophrenic voices, so they can confront them.
Tech is not evil. It provides us with tools we can use. These tools can exploit our mental vulnerabilities, but they can also help us heal them.
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