"The Technology of Our Desire”

Home Life People "The Technology of Our Desire”

When we speak of technology, too often we use the language of technology. We say that I have X type of mobile phone, featuring V type of operating system, running Z type of application. But this causes us to lose contact with real meaning, to miss out on the possibility of communicating what is human.

Instead we must recall that we are human beings when we speak of technology. We must use human language, the language of our feelings, of our senses. For we humans are emotional creatures, physical creatures.

Then we can say that I carry a rectangular shaped object of metal and glass in my pocket, and it summons my attention, constantly, like a syringe summons the attention of a drug addict, calling out to me, and when I have misplaced it, when I cannot find it and gaze upon it and speak to it, it is as though a part of myself has gone missing.

Speaking of technology in such a human language allows us to see that technology is not separate from what is human. Rather, technology comes from what makes us human: technology comes from our desires. The existence of airplanes is not something separate from the existence of human beings. Airplanes exist because we human beings desired to fly.

Like desire itself, technology is not inherently good or bad. It does not lead inexorably to either utopia or dystopia. The outcome of technological progress for humanity depends on the relationship between humans and technology: whether technology acts only upon us, or whether we too are able act upon technology.

The question we face now, at this moment of exponentially accelerating technological change, is how do we create a world where humans feel comfortable with the progress of technology? How do we restore a sense of ease, a sense that we are not merely readers of a future being written by someone else, but authors of our own future together?

One way forward is a radical democratisation of technology. Technology comes from our shared human culture, from the human cultural capital accumulated through all of history, from language and mathematics and physics and the zero and the one, from something that belongs to all of us. Intellectual property, like the oceans, can be fished individually but must collectively be thought of as our commons. Every human, in this democratic vision of technology, would have a share in the benefit that comes from technology.

In the world to come, as machines learn, they will make great surpluses possible, and they will also obliterate many jobs. If those surpluses are captured by a few people, and those jobs losses are borne by billions of others, we will indeed have a dystopia. But if those surpluses could be shared, and if all could have a say in shaping the direction of technology, then perhaps something that feels like a utopia begins to become thinkable: a world of plenty, where we have the freedom to pursue what we each value most. A world with food and shelter and energy and agency for all. A world better for humans than any that has come before.

Humans have long desired to live in heaven. Whether technology makes this possible will depend on whether we open the doors to heaven wide, or whether we seek to limit access to a chosen few, and in the process give birth to a hell.

Mohsin Hamid