Technology innovation gives us new choices and new means to pursue them, but it doesn’t tell us what we should seek. Yet strangely we often find technology itself cast as the answer. The proffered high-tech solutions are “data driven,” as if no one need ask which data matter or what they really tell us. Asking such questions does not make you a Luddite. It means you appreciate the best that technology has to offer: new means to pursue ends of humans’ choosing. It’s to recognize that we have a spectrum of choices —high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech.
To insist on access to the full spectrum is to recognize that the end is not autonomous systems, but autonomous humans. We should have learned this already. Generations ago, North Americans were sold a utopian vision of freedom delivered by technology. An elusive future in which we could drive anywhere at any time and park for free when we got there was presented with a promise of freedom, but it delivered only car dependency, a deprivation of choice that is antagonistic to freedom. Pursuing this mirage has been fantastically expensive by numerous measures. We hear that technology will now let us pursue the drive-anywhere future more successfully, as if the failure is in the technology itself, and not in human choices.
The drive-anywhere ideal was not a mass preference, but was product sold on the basis of extravagant promises that could not be kept. Those who sold it also justified it by embedding it in a historical trajectory of their own design— a misleading history written to convince us that the drive-anywhere city is the city we always really wanted. We cannot choose the future we want until we recover the history we lost as a casualty of this campaign. It’s a neglected history that offers to recover for us the full spectrum of means— high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech— to seek a future of our choosing.