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Technology and Autonomy

Francis Fukuyama

I am beginning this blog primarily in order to write about technology.  Like everyone else in the modern world, I make extensive use of technology, even when doing things that don’t seem tech-related like woodworking.  Beyond that, though, I’ve gotten deep into a number of technologies as a hobby, which has consumed more of my time than I’d like to admit.  For example, I have been building my own computers and writing my own software for day-to-day use for more than 30 years now.  One activity has metastasized into another, as when the need to design furniture led to learning how to use CAD (computer aided design) software, which in turn led to 3D modeling and animation.  Or when flying drones turned into an interest in robotics and embedded systems like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, and then into CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) systems.

The reason I like working with technology begins with the fact that it is fun. I know of few things as satisfying as hitting the “on” switch of a complex system you’ve been building for a couple of weeks and having it actually do what it’s supposed to, or pressing the “compile” button on your computer and getting a functioning software program.

But there is a deeper reason for getting into technology beyond what’s in the operating manual that comes with a given product.  It has to do with personal autonomy.  In a modern society we are all extremely dependent on technological systems, for the most part designed by huge, distant technology companies. When we step into an airliner we are boarding an unbelievably complex system that is backed by enormous social structures that design, build, test, and operate these systems, all of which are completely hidden from us.  We become aware of these complexities only when something goes wrong, like the Boeing 737 Max disasters, but even then we don’t have a clue about the millions of small engineering and management decisions that led to the outcome.

This means that we are dependent on those companies, and therefore subject to manipulation by them in ways that we scarcely understand.  When we do a search on the internet, or see a news feed, or order something online, our experience is shaped by complex algorithms designed to foster the company’s self-interest.  We may benefit as a result, but no one should be under any illusion that the company has our interest primarily in mind.  You can never totally escape this dependence and manipulation, but the more you know about the underlying technology, the more ability you have to shape your own experience.

Matt Crawford writes about this with respect to cars in his book Why We Drive.  He hates the way that car manufacturers have loaded up modern automobiles with computers, sensors, and control devices that have taken away the need for knowledge and skill in driving.  In the interest of “safety,” modern cars do not allow us to make them do things they weren’t designed for, like “drifting” around sharp corners at high speeds where the rear wheels lose traction.  We don’t know how to feel for engine performance or road conditions, since that is all monitored by computers.  He hates most of all the idea of the self-driving car, which carries the process of infantilization to the final degree.  The high school mechanic who could strip down his car’s engine and rebuild it is today a thing of the past, given the complexity of modern vehicles.  And in the process we’ve lost something.

The same can be said for computers, in front of which millions of us sit each day. That is why learning to build your own computer can be a step in the direction of greater autonomy in our present world.

Frankly FukuyamaTechnology