Technology and Health
Problems call for solutions. And to solve them we turn to tools. Is it ever the case that using a tool creates new problems? Of course. The internal combustion engine was a tool to solve, we’re told, the problem of city streets littered with horse manure; widespread use of this new tool in turn created at least one new problem: air pollution.
So when we use technology as a tool to solve health problems (especially at the population level) it’s worth asking if we don’t in turn create unanticipated health problems. It’s worth asking, do our “smart” devices interfere with the exercise of fundamental skills essential to human health? Some medical professionals worry that medical technology has marginalized the use of their five senses in diagnostic settings. And do GPS-enabled apps, tracking devices and internet-enabled appliances mothball innate coping skills, the exercise of which could be the wellspring of wellbeing? After all, we are born with capabilities uniquely suited to navigating our experiences, and the skillful exercise of these must play a crucial role in wellbeing.
One way to think about these questions is to think about the nature of health. Let’s say health is something like a proxy for flourishing, as it seems perfectly legitimate to assert. Thinking about the nature of health would mean thinking about what it means to flourish. And in what ways technology can interfere with it. First, it might be helpful to think about what technology is, essentially. And for this we go all the way back to the ancients.
In his Politics Aristotle wrote about the use of tools. They are to serve us, as a slave his master. He distinguished two modes of use, privileging the natural or proper use of tools over uses that produce secondary value. The natural use of a tool serves us directly – a screwdriver is naturally used to tighten/loosen a screw; a lever, to increase the force we exert on an object; a slave, his master’s bidding.
Aristotle’s schema anticipates the role technology has come to play. The real use of technology is in its secondary value – it is more than anything else a world view, by which is meant that it determines our most basic understanding of the human enterprise; it could even be said that it frames human experience as enterprise. It has the effect of homogenizing all phenomena. Problems are universalized so they can be “solved” at scale and in the abstract, preempting the call, for example, to deal with a specific screw, or a specific human experiencing specific symptoms.
But problems are experienced in the particular, and are solved with the skillful use of tools (Aristotle’s “natural use”). Our place in the world is a ceaseless involvement with specific phenomena, which often present themselves as problems to be solved by the expenditure of effort, i.e., the skillful use of tools. The appeal of technology is that it seems to reduce if not eliminate the intensity, if not the necessity, of this effort. In our time, technology seems an unalloyed good because it seems to lessen the toil naturally befalling human kind.
Perhaps nowadays we are seduced into the “promise” of a toil-free existence. Admittedly, it has a nice ring to it. But what if toil is how we register – experience – our physical being? What if it’s the stage upon which we flourish? If so, then eliminating toil equates to a kind of nihilism. Health is at least in part the flourishing of our bodies. And technology at least in part marginalizes our bodies; its seductions should be appraised with this in mind.