Changing the World -- Technology or Users?

03/17/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Gil Laroya Award-winning Silicon Valley product designer

Sitting at my desk, listening to a stream of NPR, I consider the power of technology and how it has the ability to "share," to give and take, and open eyes and minds, and allow the exchange of thoughts and opinions amongst millions of people. But the reality of technology and how it affects the world lies in the willingness of users to employ and leverage technology in the evolution and change of society.

Just recently, I had written about "disconnecting" from the internet. I deactivated my Facebook account, as well as my Twitter and Yelp accounts. I have even disconnected my HTC Droid smartphone, in exchange for a 15+ year old Samsung flip phone. In some sense, this was a personal experiment of sorts, to find out just how much of my life was digital versus analog. Had my own life evolved into a series of texts, emails, tweets and Facebook postings? After three weeks so far, I can say that in fact, I had been quite buried in my digital life. I found myself so reliant on my electronic connections, that when I disconnected cold turkey it felt like being dropped off in the middle of a forest. Very surreal and incredibly intimidating.

What this told me was that what I saw as "the world" was my impression of life based on looking through a digital window. Technology had become a virtual "window" through which I was watching the world ebb and flow. Without realizing it, the electronic age had swept through my personal insights, and in a strange twist, technology made me think the world had changed.

But what I'm seeing now, without the "technology beer goggles" that I had long forgotten about, is that the world is still the world. What has actually changed is how users adapt to the world through technology. It's akin to giving a caveman a hammer -- in effect turning him into a caveman who can drive nails really really well. Nevertheless, he still grunts and drags his knuckles the same way.

Technology is less about being a "game changer," and more about being a better ball to use in the same game. Technology is the better firehose, which still requires a fireperson to use it to put out fires. Technology is a tool, not a tool user. It's how we adapt as a society, using technology, that makes the world seem more advanced than it really is.

Now I don't particularly recommend disconnecting outright. A lot of my friends and relatives emailed me, wondering what happened to me and "why I unfriended them" -- which I didn't (sorry guys). There are just drawbacks that can't be dealt with easily. I no longer hear from relatives and friends that I used to hear from. I can no longer tweet my thoughts to the world. I'm no longer in tune with what cousins are up to or whose birthday it is. Its amazes me how much I miss in life without the reach that technology gives me. But, being the human being that I am, I've adapted, albeit kicking and screaming the whole way.

The world feels like a different place. It seems like such a complicated, connected, networked place. But when you peel back the layers of gadgets, electronics, WEP keys and data plans, you will find that the world is the same as when you left it -- before you unknowingly put on the "technology beer goggles."

If you don't believe me, try disconnecting just one of your connections for a month and see what you discover. What you'll find is that the veil of technology does affect how you see the world -- a world that really hasn't changed all that much.