Technology is not dehumanizing. It’s what makes us human.

October 17, 2013

Shocking photo evidence of dehumanized millennials. (oFace Killah via Flickr)

A new survey from Intel making the rounds today is being touted with headlines about how young adults say technology is dehumanizing.  And there is one line from the press release describing the findings of the survey that supports that characterization: "A majority of millennials agree that technology makes people less human and that society relies on technology too much."

But looking at the options for responding to that question, other responses in the same survey, and how one defines what makes someone "human," that angle on the survey falls apart. To start with, the way the specific question being interpreted as "dehumanizing" was worded didn't really give respondents a lot of leeway. They were asked which was closer to their world view: "technology makes us more human" or "technology makes us less human." Note that there wasn't an option for "technology use does not impact whether or not people are human" or "this question makes no sense."

And other responses showed that millennials were not very ambiguous about their positive feelings towards technology in general. Some 69 percent reportedly believe technology "enhances their personal relationships." And majorities had "great hope" that innovations will positively affect other areas of their lives, like education and transportation. Dr. Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Interaction and Experience Research at Intel Labs, noted in a statement released with the data that the findings don't really seem to reflect that millennials are rejecting technology, but that the reality of the situation "is more complicated and interesting.”

It makes perfect sense for this generation to still be processing the changes brought on by recent technological advances. Millennials were the first generation to grow up with the Internet as an integral part of their lives -- which is a somewhat disorienting experience when compared to the rest of human history. But as a millennial myself, I certainly don't think it makes me less human to be able to Skype with my grandmother who lives over a thousand miles away, engage with people from around the world on Twitter, or consume the various digital cultural works -- like say, Final Fantasy VI.

However, to an even broader point, the use of technology and tools are actually a defining characteristic of being human. Sure, it's not integral to our DNA, but our species' use of technology to spread across the planet and create leisure time is what allowed what we consider "culture" to develop. The very field of the "humanities" itself would not be possible without technology: The basic tools needed to write records and accounts from our history is what allowed us to reflect and derive value from our collective experiences.

By all means, go read Intel's survey. It contains some interesting conclusions unrelated to the topic of this post. But bring some skepticism to write-ups using it to sell a dehumanizing narrative when discussing technology.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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