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Q&A: Technoskeptic explores dark side of tech and innovation advances

SALT LAKE CITY — The tech explosion of the last decade has driven a long-running bull market, minted the world's first trillion-dollar companies and made billion-dollar venture deals quotidian news items.

But one Boston-based publisher has made it his mission to question where the wave of progress, and outsized capital success, is leading.

Since 2015, Mo Lotman and his contributors have been exploring the flip side to the widespread exuberance and adoption of technological advances from a standpoint of impacts on our individual and societal well-being with his publication, The Technoskeptic.

While making no bones about exploring the impacts of technology from a distinct point of view firmly anchored in skepticism, Lotman is also quick to clarify that he's not a neo-Luddite and the point is not to embrace blind contrarianism. Rather, he explains, it's a call for committing to deeper and broader explorations of where a new technology is going to take us before we take the first step down a path that may seem, at first flush, as simply a faster, easier and more convenient option.

A blurb on the Boston area-based magazine's homepage may capture it best: "What if instead of blindly riding the wave of futurism, we actually took on the responsibility to vet the latest developments and make conscientious decisions about whether and how they should be adopted?"

Lotman and his contributors have touched on a wide range of topics including digital surveillance, artificial intelligence, the gig economy, personal data privacy and much, much more.

Lotman was in Salt Lake City recently and stopped by the Deseret News offices for an interview ahead of the release of the first print edition of The Technoskeptic.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Tell me about what led to the launch of The Technoskeptic?

Mo Lotman: There was a moment that was sort of an awakening for me where I stopped unthinkingly embracing all new technology, which I would say is the way I used to be and the way most people are. Particularly, there was the cloning of Dolly the Sheep … that seemed weird and like something out of a sci-fi story. Cloning animals is something that may not directly impact my life, but if we can do that then what’s going to prevent us from cloning people? I’m not a particularly religious person, but I have a sense of spirituality … and I do believe there are some things that are sacred and worth protecting.

A couple years later cellphones started exploding and that’s when I was really impacted personally and saw it as a gigantic social change. It doesn’t seem to be improving society, it's an incredible distraction and it's getting in the way of people’s relationships with each other. There was a moment where I thought … this is a new toy and we’ll eventually figure it out and things will sort of settle down and people will regain their formal level of consideration. But, that of course did not happen, and I believe, when it comes to cellphone use, it's continuing to get worse.

The Edward Snowden revelation in 2013 was really the last straw. That changed me from being an arm-chair rager … and made me realize I needed to channel this feeling into something proactive. What does one do when they see the society they’ve been living in their whole life going off the cliff?

DN:It's not hard to see the impacts of technology, like cellphones, on our personal behaviors and interactions, but a lot of tech innovations are big, systemic disruptions. How do individuals assess how their small interactions play a part in bigger changes that new technology brings?

ML: One problem is that individual actions often seem to make sense at an individual level but, collectively, they’re horrible social policy. Uber is a great example of that. I need to get somewhere and there’s a car that can pick me up in just a few moments and get me there so why wouldn’t I? It’s hard to argue against that in an individual instance. But the combined effects of Uber are detrimental to a city’s infrastructure. For instance, you’re taking people, many of whom would be biking, walking or taking public transit, and you’re sticking them in individual cars. From an environmental aspect, it’s disastrous.

This reflects an entitlement, on-demand attitude that supports the idea that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it and wherever you want it. It points to an infantilization of our society. No one is willing to walk or wait or be inconvenienced in any way. At some point there has to be some care and, if we want to foster a society of people who care, we need them to look outside themselves and recognize how their actions impact others. The opposite of this mindset is a global, on-demand network in your pocket promising to deliver you anything and everything you need, all the time.

DN: Obviously, tech innovations and new tech products are proliferating at a very high rate. Among all this new technology, what products or processes are most on the radar of The Technoskeptic?

ML: I wouldn't want to create a top 10 list but there are some bigger issues we have, and will continue to follow. Surveillance has always been a thing I’m very concerned about. It continues to be a growing part of our reality. It’s more sophisticated and pervasive than ever. Artificial intelligence absolutely is a concern as is automation, whether it’s “intelligent” or not. Algorithms … are used to score everything that everyone does, certainly online and, increasingly, offline. It’s becoming a replacement for human judgment, and I think that’s a mistake. I just don’t think you can outsource things like justice and judgment. The argument is that humans are racist and sexist and biased in many other ways, which is absolutely true, but I don’t think that makes a machine preferable. Ultimately, I think we’re here to relate to each other and recognize our faults and remedy them whenever we can.

DN: The Technoskeptic is still going strong after three years of digital publishing and you've added a print edition. Is this a sign that your coverage is resonating with readers?

ML: There are plenty of people who recognize a lot of the detriments of certain facets of our technology, but just need to hear them articulated. We're working to create a new perspective where (readers) can actually see how they’re being used and manipulated and see clearly how they’re losing touch with themselves, with others, with nature and with the things that bring them happiness. I don’t think my little magazine is going to stem the tide of the technological and capitalistic juggernaut. But, I hope we can help people coalesce around a change of opinion that leads to, "I don't want this for my life."

DN:For those who might want to take some initial steps in finding a better tech/analog balance in their lives, what would you suggest?

ML: A good start is to take a moment to consider how (using technology) is impacting your relationships with friends, with family and how it affects things like the kind of conversations you're having. Then, take a day and just decide not to do it. Turn off your computer, put your phone in a drawer. And observe what happens to yourself … how other people interact with you. One thing you’ll notice is how much everyone else is engaged, constantly, with their technology. If you make it a regular habit, you will learn why it's valuable. It’s hard to explain to someone who is still addicted why not being addicted is useful.