Is technology your servant or master?

“Sometimes the very technology that is meant to connect us divides us. Technology is capable of doing great things. But it doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything.”

As Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered this year’s commencement address at MIT he reminded graduates that the technologies we create and use are — and can only be — a reflection of ourselves and of our own values.

Cook recalled a meeting with Pope Francis who expressed their shared concern about the morality of technology: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures it will be used wisely.” Cook said the meeting was the most incredible of his life because it was clear to him that the Pope had thought deeply about the opportunity, risks, and morality of technology.

Technology is not neutral. Whatever we design or use implicitly reflects our priorities, our values, and even our sense about the purpose of life. What we create shows what matters to us, and what is more or less important.

the technologies we create and use are a reflection of ourselves and of our own values.

Cook says, “I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers without values or compassion, without concern for consequences.”

What a powerful insight.

What is to prevent you from thinking like a dispassionate computer? Many people think the human person is really just a brain and a brain is really just a computer. Do you still have the conviction that there are uniquely human activities that computers will never do? What if, in all the efforts to humanise technology, we are actually ‘technologising’ human beings?

Cook doesn’t want to be cynical, however I couldn’t help but think of this article that explains how, when it comes to technology, you are no longer treated as a customer but as a product. Programmers and designers deliberately use cognitive psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience, and so forth to intentionally create an addiction to technology. As Ramsay Brown put it, “A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.”

Cook thinks that technology should reflect and serve our highest values, but what are those values? What if those values are utility, profit, and convenience?

It seems to me that in this century we will have no shortage of people with technical proficiencies. The question is not however how technologically competent we will be — it’s how morally competent in the face of significant challenges to the human person. Will there be human-centred leaders to cooperate in ordering technology toward the truly great and worthwhile things to which only human beings can aspire, ensuring technology remains a servant and not a master?