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Software and Apps are Not the Only Technology

Posted: April 1, 2017 at 7:45 am   /   by

A quick glance at some of the most popular technology websites shows their bias toward one particular type of technology – software. Software is eating the world, we are told. If you aren’t an algorithm or an AI, you are obsolete. Better get ready for automation to come and take your job! Go out and buy some sweatpants and take shelter on the sofa waiting for Universal Basic Income, because the robots are coming.

Economists seem to worry that humans are gorging on technology and leveraging themselves into a productivity overdose coma. The rest of us have no idea what universe they are describing, while we commute on over-burdened and crumbling roads, spend precious time trying to convince our peers that vaccines and GMO food crops are good, and watch our elders struggle to get all of the medical care they need.

Our day-to-day, lived experience reflects entirely the opposite crisis from what the expert media describes: a slide backwards in research and development spending, infrastructure that was built for only half as much population, a constant battle against scientific illiteracy, and a workforce that creates many more low-wage and low-productivity jobs than it does high-wage high-productivity jobs. Flint, Michigan is only one of many thousands of communities around the United States where lead contamination is endemic. How can we tell ourselves that we are facing a crisis of too much technology while our society is failing to maintain the type of plumbing that Americans have counted on for decades to get clean and safe drinking water?

The simplest answer is that culturally, we have lost sight of what technology actually is. The dictionary definition of technology doesn’t mention software, apps, or computers. Technology is really just the practical application of knowledge toward anything that improves our lives. Hospitals have technology. Farms have technology. The military has technology. But this broader definition of technology has been replaced by a narrower definition of technology that only includes software, and it’s the result of a failure in the media. Bloggers regurgitating press releases from social media startups get free trips to debauched events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas or South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, but there are no such rewards for writing about the industries that consider a tractor or a heart monitor to be technology at least equal to the exploding Galaxy Note 7.

The editorial shorthand that equates software and technology comes at a steep cost for everyone. Students are told that they must learn to code by breathless editorials that operate under the assumption that in the future there will be only software engineers and no other jobs. While learning to code is certainly good and valuable, the hysteria that accompanies the push for absolutely everyone to learn to code is counterproductive. There are many technology jobs that don’t involve software, and a lot of them are in fields where the current workforce is aging and will eventually want to retire. It isn’t employees of Google fixing the contaminated water system in Flint, and it’s obnoxious and arrogant to say that such a mammoth task doesn’t count as a technology job unless every toilet in Michigan connects to Instagram.

If Americans are interested in fixing our problems instead of merely taking to Twitter or Facebook to complain about them, the first step is to recognize that not all technology can be downloaded. Some technology requires input from medical doctors, blue-collar workers, or other people that may not be experts on software but know how to build or maintain something else. They are doing technology jobs too, even if their company does not take venture capital or allow telecommuting.

Hannah Thoreson

Hannah Thoreson is a science and technology writer based in northern Virginia. She earned a physics degree from Arizona State University in 2012 and has been causing trouble ever since.

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Software and Apps are Not the Only Technology