Why doesn’t technology bring us great joy?

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering’s Activate Conference.

This walking stick was custom made for me by a dear friend. It’s sustainably made from reclaimed timber, lovingly handcrafted to be exactly the height that I need, and finished with a natural wax that is tough, hard wearing, and non toxic. It is a gloriously beautiful thing, that does exactly what I need it to do, and brings me great joy.

Dr McIver holding her walking stick while sitting on a stage at ATSE Activate​
A glorious thing that brings me great joy

And I’d like you now to ask yourself, when did you last think that about technology? Whether hardware or software, smartphone or car, laptop or microwave? Have you ever looked at a piece of technology and thought “This is a gloriously beautiful thing that does exactly what I need it to do, and brings me great joy?”

Every day we adapt ourselves to technology, instead of the technology adapting itself to us. For this talk I currently have a battery pack tucked into my dress. We wear uncomfortable headphones ALL DAY so there’s no echo. We contort ourselves into ridiculous positions to read tiny instructions, labels, and model numbers in absurd fonts and inaccessible locations. We anglicize our names so they fit into government databases that were designed for the John Smiths and David Johnson’s of the world.

We take it for granted that tech will frustrate us. It will bite us. It will eat our work, waste our time, break in unexpected ways, or not do things the way we expect. That’s just the nature of tech, right?

We subscribe to 5 different streaming services to find the shows we want to watch. We have 4 different ride share apps so that we can find the closest car. 6 different food delivery apps to access our favourite restaurants. 5 different authenticator apps. 7 different parking apps. And don’t get me started on mygov! The onus is on us to make it all work.

This is, indeed, the nature of tech. But why?

It’s because the technology industry too often asks the wrong questions. It asks: “What can we build?” and not “what should we build?” It asks “how can we monetise this?” and not “how can we use this to make the world better?” And it asks “does this work for me?” instead of asking “does this work for everyone?”

It’s because the technology industry very rarely has teams that are truly representative of the whole population. We have a notorious lack of women, but we also lack non binary folks, indigenous folks, deaf folks, and vision impaired.

We lack people who are mobility impaired or chronically ill. We lack people who don’t have reliable internet access at home. We lack people from different backgrounds, people with different expectations, people from different cultures and with different ideas. We lack people who are prepared to ask “Is this a good idea?” and “who will this harm?”

We also lack people who can come up with the kind of really diverse and radical solutions we need to solve the crises we face.

And we know that a significant part of the reason for that lack of diversity is because we lose kids as early as Primary School. We teach them that STEM is toys and shiny things – robots and pretty pictures. We teach them that it’s difficult, frustrating, and pointless. That the consequences of getting it wrong don’t matter. That it might be fun (though a lot of kids don’t find it so) but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. It’s not really meaningful, or important. And we don’t really need to test it.

We wind up with whole cohorts of kids who don’t understand and engage with STEM. We don’t teach them that STEM is a tool they can use to change the world. What if we did? What if we built kids’ STEM skills, and especially their tech skills, by empowering them to solve problems in their own communities? What if we taught kids, from their very first year of school, that STEM is something they can do, and something that’s worth doing?

What kind of future would that build?

And bear in mind that building the future is something the whole community needs to have a say in. We’re not just building tech skills in kids to fuel the tech industry. We’re doing it so that our whole society is educated enough to help shape our future. Do we want to collaboratively design our own future, or do we want a future imposed on us by the likes of Musk and Zuckerberg?

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