There’s No App for That

The promise of technology is that it can make our lives easier. Free us from “menial” labor, enable us to focus on more meaningful and uplifting tasks, provide us with more leisure time.

I don’t know, having to constantly monitor four separate email accounts feels more menial to me than milking a cow ever did. Being at the beck and call of every ring, beep or knocking sound coming from a palm-sized computer all day every day is pretty darned menial. And how many of us are working fewer hours these days? How many of us have more down time?

We’re all so busy that we haven’t the time to reflect on how positively Pavlovian technology is and how its every wish is our command. The promise of technology is that it will serve us. Most days it sure looks like it’s the other way around.

The reality of technology is that it consumes us in menial labor, just a different sort of toil than it promised to free us from. It leaves us with little or no time for reflection, and little or no time for some of the most meaningful and critically important human undertakings. Like active citizenship.

Technology also promises to make citizenship easier and more effective. I’ve been watching for years now as citizenship has been slowly but surely turned into clicktivism. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of civic engagement, one where we can exercise our duties as citizens without leaving home, without even getting up off the couch, without ever coming into contact with people who don’t share our political beliefs, without ever having to talk through our differences. Technology promises to free us from that messy business. Just click here and you’ve done democracy.

Oh, if it was only that easy. Democracy is fundamentally social. It involves personally dealing with people whose ideas we hate. It depends on the establishment and maintenance of relationships.

It’s not only technology working at cross purposes with this human endeavor. The pandemic has made it infinitely more challenging, no doubt about it. That’s why I’m not a fan of the term “social distancing.” Even as we need to keep our physical distance from one another during this public health emergency, it is terribly important that we find ways to remain socially connected. And not just with those who think like us.

Technology promises to make us an app for that. In the end, it will prove to be an empty promise. When it comes to repairing broken relationships, when it comes to speaking one’s truth and listening to another’s truth, when it comes to hashing out differences, artificial intelligence is no substitute for actual intelligence. And clicktivism is no substitute for actual citizenship.

Mike McCabe

September 17, 2020