As a software engineer, I spend a considerable amount of time every day trying to determine which solution should be used to solve a particular problem. It did not take long from the start of my education in Computer Science to start asking questions of problems that went far beyond the daily situations I’d encounter. Where most students would ask “what is the latest way to do this thing I want to do?” or “how could I optimize this functionality?”, I would ask questions of the “why should I be doing any of this?” variety.
“Why” questions in the technology world are generally pushed outward to a few predefined and limited answers and generally boil down to:
- For personal satisfaction.
- To help someone accomplish something faster/easier.
- To help someone accomplish something new.
- For profit.
- Stop asking dumb questions.
Certainly we can all grasp the answers and understand them, but do they really answer the question of why we ought to make any technological progress? I don’t think so. Personal satisfaction can be had in other ways, some of which are better at personal enlightenment or edification. Helping people do something faster or easier is just as often a creator of problems as it is a solver of one, and it is certainly not inherently virtuous. Helping people accomplish something new is again not inherently virtuous, but is inherently more dangerous that just speeding up or simplifying an old activity. Profit is the hardest to argue with, but profit alone is not morally virtuous; it is on its own a neutral concept.
This is not to say that I oppose creating or inventing new technology as a matter of practice. I undoubtedly wait longer to adopt a new piece of technology than most and often never do (I refuse to own a smart phone), but it is not my rule to hate technological advancement by any means. I simply don’t find value in a constant pursuit of it for a couple of reasons. First of all, I believe the highest activity to which humans find their natural end is the knowledge of God and molding of oneself to this fact. I believe the second highest activity is in producing, raising, and teaching the next generation. Neither of those things are made easier by technology, but are in fact made much more difficult because of distraction and misinformation. I think of the myriad pieces of false information online against the abundance of knowledge in books that no one reads anymore because they are not accompanied by interactive illustrations.
The second reason I don’t value this pursuit is that it is exhausting far beyond its reward. Take smart phones for instance. Smart phones provide a number of useful features. At times, I’ve taken advantage of those features on the phones my friends own. The technology behind smart phones, however, is constantly changing, and phones are outdated within a year, sometimes within six months. The new features never transform the phone itself, but if you want to be on the bleeding edge of technology, you have to upgrade anyway. What you’ll receive for it is usually not worth the price or the time, let alone the advertising we all endure. Not worth it, that is, if by “worth” we mean more than entertainment value.
These two facts often contradict my profession; a profession that demands a pursuit of the latest and greatest technological advances. I don’t have a problem learning new technologies or developing new tools. My issue primarily lies in the long-term aspects of my work. Despite all the day-to-day interesting problems which require solving in a software engineering position, the question of ultimate purpose must always be asked. So far, the only long-term motivation for staying in a software engineering position that I am aware of is the financial benefit and the intellectual stimulation. As to the two highest ends of my existence – the pursuit of God and the creation and expansion of a family – it is the financial benefit that is most important, while the stimulation simply keeps it interesting.
I am still working through the implications of the contradiction and will continue to write on the topic. I think it is important considering the technological aspirations of our era.