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Is Technology the Problem?

We do live in turbulent times. There is such a lot happening, with many people feeling overwhelmed and lost. One of the reasons given why we do have these problems is technology.

I would argue against that. In all reality, technology is a tool that we can use, and yes, we all know that we can use it for the wrong reasons (cars kill people, atom bombs, killer robots, chemical and biological warfare and so on). However, we have learned to live with it, and in general, the outcome from science, innovation and technology has been positive.

Look at the progress in healthcare, education and agriculture. Furthermore, people love their smartphones, the internet, apps and gadgets as those are making their lives better. Artificial intelligence and robots can all be used for the better. Of course, some people get addicted or are using it for the wrong reasons; however, most of them don’t.

So, if technology is not a problem, why are so many people feeling lost? On the material side, we could argue that we have never had it better, especially if you compare this with our grandparents and the generations before them.

In my opinion, the problem is emotional and not physical. Physically, we are better off, but mentally, we seem to have problems with the way society functions.

The complexity of our lives and our world is simply too big to fathom for most people in the Western world. I think the rest of the world is still too busy with the “physical” side. The mental problem—at least at this level—is mainly a Western problem.

This lack of mental strength is also very clear in our leadership—they also don’t seem to be able to lead the people in a better direction. Instead, they are constantly reverting to political polarisation and populism. This adds to the confusion and anxiousness; people feel lost and become easy targets for fake news, conspiracies, etc.

For as long as humans have been in existence, they have had leaders, be they tribal, community or national. In all reality, perhaps 10% are leaders (if that); the rest, in one way or another, follow them. Even after popular uprising or rebellion, we end up with not more than 10% of (new) leaders. I don’t think this has changed.

Good or bad leaders have narratives, and based on that, the rest of the population usually follows, be it for better or worse. So, while the problems we are facing are created by us, with good leaders and good narratives the “us” will follow. I would argue that at least one of our current problems is the lack of good leadership.

I know I am on thin ice, as people will say, “define good”. But within a democratic context, most people will intuitively be able to make such judgments. This is different within totalitarian and autocratic societies, where there is not the openness and transparency needed to make informed decisions.

Take climate change. Easily 80% of people see this and want to do something about it, yet many governments fail to come up with good, strong narratives to lead us in the right direction. A key reason, therefore, is that in all reality, their problem is the protection of vested interests based on capitalistic and neoliberalism structures.

Of course, we do need to balance those issues, but because of polarisation, most leaders fail to provide a longer-term, more centralistic-oriented vision on how to best do that.

On the narrative, this is now largely in the hands of the media, and while the focus of the “baddies” is on social media, I believe the traditional media—especially TV—still have a far greater impact. Most commercial media rely on selling bad news (again a capitalistic issue because they want to increase their profits), and there isn’t a strong enough counter-narrative from political leadership. Good leaders could produce good narratives that people would support and that, in turn, would temper the negative media narrative.

It would also be good to see more activism from our young people. They were in the 1960s and 1970s a driving force between many of the changes that occurred during that period. We need more Greta Thunbergs to shake up our societies.

It could be argued that young people have been the real victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, robbing them so far already two years of the very precious time of being young. We need them to force changes to a society that sometimes looks like it has fallen asleep or been dominated by the self-interests of the baby boomers.

In my opinion, it is totally unrealistic to expect the majority—the more settled population—to take the lead or even to be part of it. They simply are not leaders but followers. Good, intelligent, responsible followers, but followers nonetheless. If good leaders with good narratives can persuade the 80%, we will win the battle. If not, we will end up in some sort of a crisis and it will a long time to recoup from that.

I am a strong believer that with democracy, good leadership and the right activism, we can use the technology tools that we currently have for a very positive influence on the future that we are facing. I find it frustrating that we do have the tools that could assist good leaders who have a reasonably good understanding of the complexities to use them to address the challenges ahead of them.

We have millions of people in our technology industries who can create, develop and use these tools. We need the leadership to come up with new and better narratives and focus this positive force on the challenges ahead.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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