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How do we live well with technology?

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology
Professor Steven Connor

Co-Director of the Digital Futures Institute

14 February 2023

In the first piece for our new feature series – Net Gains?, Professor Steven Connor, Co-Director of the Digital Futures Institute, shares his personal insight into why we need to explore the question: how do we live well with technology?

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My dad had an irritating way of persuading my sister and me to do things we didn’t like the sound of. After having failed to persuade us that the terrifying, or, even worse, tedious thing that he was trying to get us to do would in fact be more exciting or absorbing than we could imagine; or, when that did not work (and it never did), that it would be less terrifying or tedious than we feared (which also never worked); he would play his trump card. ‘Look,’ he would say, smirkingly, ‘even if it is as bad as you think, think how nice it will be when it’s over’.  

Being a Liverpudlian, our dad thought everything was a joke in the making, and the more often you told it, the better the joke got, so we got to be very familiar with this punch-line. But even more infuriating than its predictability was its utter incontrovertibility. For it is indeed irritatingly applicable to every imaginable unpleasantness, short of the certifiably perpetual torment of hellfire, I suppose. It is hard to be sure whether the nice-when-it-stops principle belongs to a fundamentally sunny disposition, or a grimly gloomy one, which might recall the antique quip that, if an optimist is someone who thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds, so is a pessimist, ho-ho. 

Deeper in years than I was then, I tend now to see this kind of evaluative somersault everywhere, which makes the answer to every question as to whether something is good or bad, ‘it’s too early to tell’. Just as bad things can become good by starting to stop, as English allows us weirdly to say, so, conversely, it is never simply true that the more of a good thing you have, the better. Our era of exponentiality, which it becomes possible to amplify almost everything, for good or ill, at huge speed, and on vast scales, makes it tricky to decide how long a good thing can stay a good thing under conditions of saturation.  

The Digital Futures Institute will explore ‘Living Well With Technology’. This will not mean determining which positives to accentuate, or how to live even more superlatively and perpetually well, but figuring out what living well means in an all-things-considered way: in terms, that is, not of absolute and invariant goods, but of net gains. A ‘net’ gain is the result of a final reckoning once every debt, downside, or arrears has been cleaned away. Net Gains happens also to be the title of a rather thoughtful recent reflection by Ryan O’Hanlon on the role of data analysis in football. To live well with technology is to reckon with the way in which every win can imply a loss (the uncanny fact, for example, that being awarded a dubious penalty kick seems to increase your chance of missing it). 

It is just this kind of multi-parameter calculus, undertaken in what we breezily call ‘real time’, and at different scales, that I hope the Digital Futures Institute will transact, working out (or, at least at), what it means to live well with the abundant opportunities, and pitfalls of our technologies. It will mean staying alive to the question of how much abundance is enough, guided by the principle articulated by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler that technology is a pharmakon, both poison and antidote, as anticipated by Paracelsus in 1538: dosis facit venenum – the poison is in the dosage. 

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Steven Connor

Steven Connor

Professor of Living well with technology

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology

Our experts discuss some of the challenges of living well with technology: showing what we can learn from a long history of technological innovation as well as addressing the challenges of…

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