Humanizing Technology

For some time now I have been considering the difficult capability that our technologies have to simultaneously improve and destroy us. For every helpful visit we make to, we waste time on a silly Flash game; for every or Egyptian revolutionary tweet, there are 1000 exploitative pornography sites and 10 passive aggressive e-mails sent to co-workers who are just down the hallway.

You get the idea: our iPhones will both save us and destroy us as they make sure we can always find our way, but don’t know how to get anywhere. As they connect us to everyone constantly, but cause us to ignore each other in person.

As we approach decisions concerning the technological approach of the Saxifrage School, it is important that we approach integration of tech with great caution. While new media, wireless devices, open source software and the like will no doubt be an integral part of our structure, we want to be careful that, above all us, our use of technology humanizes us.

Too frequently Schools have accepted technological platforms and progress into their models just for the sake of being up to date, or to appeal to digital-age students. I have to say, I would have–and maybe still would–be enticed by a “Free iPad for every student” marketing campaign. While we want to be innovative and contemporary in our approach, we will attempt to remember that tech for tech’s sake will have poor results.

I am frequently reminded of this “humanizing technology” concept as I struggle to find a balance, a right tech-ethic, in my own life. Although the issue has been present for most of my existence as a closet technophile, this particular phrase has more recently become part of my favorite vocabulary. I first heard it from ed-tech vanguard Sal Khan, who was talking about the possibility of humanizing the classroom by “flipping it”: using classroom time for the teacher’s to interact one-on-one with students instead of delivering content via lecture and using homework time to absorb new content via web video, interactive tutorials, and problem sets. It’s a scary concept to many, but potentially genius.

It has so much potential because it does what many other innovation have not done, it asks the question: does this tech humanize the experience?

This question, I’ve realized is a specific iteration of a larger question, one that I’ve come to understand well from a passage in Wendell Berry’s essay “The Loss of the University” where he posits that every thing that we produce requires an inquisition into its value:

“Every made thing must be submitted to these questions: What is the quality of this thing as a human artifact, as an addition to the world of made and of created things? How suitable is it to the needs of human and natural neighborhoods?”


The past couple weeks I have seen a few hopeful signs of thoughtful, widespread criticism. One of the most intriguing and aptly named is MTV’s Digital Rights project against digital abuse, A Thin Line.  Regardless of your opinion of MTV, their recognition of the tricky balance we walk between digital use and digital abuse is commendable.

I also read a more critical journalistic opinion on the matter yesterday in The Atlantic; The author succinctly describes how entrenched we have become in our digital lives and how each generation is becoming more and more attached to the internet. The shocker title of the article refers to a recent study of college students: half of them claiming that the internet is more important to them than dating, spending time with friends, and listening to music.

More inquiry, constant inquiry, will be necessary as we continue our digital lives in our digital culture. The rules, etiquette, and boundaries have yet to be decided and, perhaps, may never exist. Where is the thin line between digital improvement and digital detraction, between use and abuse? Maybe, to re-iterate, the answer lies in this question of humanization.


One example that has been constantly on my mind (because I’ve given them a lot of money this week):

Does humanize our shopping experience for the holidays? Does it make our gifts more thoughtful and meaningful? Does it connect us to where and how they were made and to their makers? Is the shopping experience healthful and substantive? Does the money we spend improve our local (or distant) human community?

In short, I decided that buying something on does not make us or anyone else a better person. Now, if I would made the thing or purchased it from someone or somewhere that I knew was making good things in a way that was good for them as a human… you get the idea.

Now, it would be simple–although difficult!–to be completely rejectionist in our approach to the increasingly widespread connectedness of the digital culture and the internet age; we could just cut ourselves off. The previously quoted Wendell Berry has done that very thing, those words of his were likely written in pencil (before being transferred to type) and the man very intentionally does not own a computer (See his essay entitled “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer”). This, however, is not a practical or fully appropriate response. Although many people can, and should, forego the use of technology for their own, often laudable, reasons (the Amish for example), the reality of our world is a digital one. The real challenge in being an excellent digital user is, perhaps, not to ascetically reject the technology, but to harness its power towards that which fully benefits. This is so extremely difficult and, I would argue, is just now starting to become more of a focus for developers.

Much of our technological development over the past 20 years has been concerned with progress: faster, cheaper, better, stronger. Recently, as the dust is clearing (but, yes, always being stirred up again), certain developers are taking the time to sit down and figure out what we can do with all this progress. One of the biggest, most humanizing realizations of the internet era, has been the potential for massive online collaboration. I am not talking about WoW, but, rather, the ubiquitous Wikipedia–yes, I read your personal appeal Jimmy!–the more subtle reCaptcha, and the upcoming DuoLingo (by the same developer as reCaptcha, Luis Von Ahn). In a recent TEDx talk at Carnegie Mellon University, Von Ahn described his excitement in realizing the power of this crowd-sourcing. He said that, before the digital age, humans could never have more than ~300,000 people working on a single project (at least I think that was the number). Essentially, he said, the capacity for humans to interact in traditional person-to-person collaboration has natural limits due to issues of organization and communication. Now, however, with the power of the internet, you can have millions of people working together to create a massive Encyclopedia of everything, digitize books (reCaptcha), or translate web content (DuoLingo).

Let’s start asking the question, “does this tech humanize?” and see where it gets us.




As I was asking the “could this technology humanize” question concerning shopping, I had an idea: maybe someone could create the opposite of Instead of using the web to isolate the purchaser from the producer, what if there were a website that organized all of the best locally-made items into a single place. A curated, fully stocked web store that, as much as possible, had every type of item a person might need. But, instead of having it made in China and shipped from an warehouse, you could see the maker’s profile and even interact with them directly.

The attractive thing about Amazon (free shipping and low prices aside) is that they have everything I always want; it’s tricky these days to find things around the City. I’m never sure where to go or if they’ll have exactly what I need and I don’t want to drive across town just to be disappointed because they aren’t open or only have it in pink. So, what about a website to help facilitate a less fractured cottage industry so that, if you wanted to buy everything at small local businesses, you could. Soap, toys, materials, food, games, books, instruments, etc. I suppose, in a way, it could be similar to what the Yellow Pages used to be, except amazing. Just the beginning of an idea.