Technology is Not the Problem

By-Selam Zhou Jie Gano

Technology is something few people really understand, and a lot of people fear. The understanding of how technology affects society, far from being rooted in facts, is often influenced by culture and politics.

I was inspired to write this article after viewing another opinion editorial: “Tech”no”logy by Kalkidan Genet” Maybe, after reading both articles side by side, you can come to your own independent conclusion about what the advancement of technology means for the future of the world, Ethiopia, and daily life.

Here are my credentials: I’m a mechanical engineering and robotics student at MIT. My father is Ethiopian, and my mother is Chinese. I grew up very internationally–visiting my family in Kaffa, SNNPR, Ethiopia, and my other family in Shanghai, China, from where I lived in the United States. I’ve been interested in robotics since I was 12 years old, and now, I study them.

There are some important things you need to know about technology:

1. The word “technology” is incredibly broad.
2. How we view technology can be affected by our culture.
3. Most people are like you.

I want you to think about these things the next time you’re trying to decide whether a piece of technology is ultimately good, bad, or both.

1. The word “technology” is incredibly broad.

What is technology, really? The dictionary defines it as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”. So, computers, airplanes, cars–these are obviously pieces of technology. But a stove could also be defined as technology! It’s the application of knowledge (the use of fire and heat to cook food) for a practical purpose. A toilet could be technology too. And any other tool you see in your house that didn’t come from nature. Why is it that we do not question these simple things, when we question a lot of other modern developments?

The real challenge of the current time is modern technology, which is developing at a rapid pace. But I think that modern technology is useful, and can be very very good, if we humans can find a way to work together and implement it.

2. How we view technology can be affected by our culture.


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Japan has the largest density of robots in its industrial workforce. And Japan, unlike the United States, has a culture that views robots as helpful and benign, instead of the ugly, evil, movie-theater villains of Hollywood. One of the most popular TV shows in Japan is called Astroboy. Astroboy is about a small robot boy that tries to find out where he came from, and meanwhile, saves people and cities from evildoers, disaster, and destruction.


The popularity of a show has a lot to do with how robots are viewed in Japan. Robots are seen as helpful machines, that one day, could aid humankind in work, play, safety, healthcare, or any number of things. Japan views robotics as the future of machines, and the public is eager to see this vision come to life. The hit Disney movie Big Hero 6, which is about a healthcare robot that helps a young boy cope with death and depression, also debuted in the Tokyo International Film Festival in Japan.


So, when we think about our initial reactions to technology, robotics, and many other subjects, it’s important to remember that everything from the books we read to the shows we watch can influence our perspective.

2. Most people are like you.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think we’ll ever be living in a society where you (yes, you) hate all the products in it. People are more similar to each other than different. In the “Tech’no’logy” article, the author wrote about living in a world without paper books where a robot cooks a tasteless meal.

Of course, this is not appealing. Does it sound appealing to you? It doesn’t sound appealing to me either. And so, if none of us are going to buy these products, how will they get created in the first place?

A good example, actually, is the ebook. An ebook is an electronic reader, which allows you to read books on the go, while traveling, and does away with heavy paper products. It could potentially be better for the environment, too.

Except, people don’t actually like ebooks. When ebooks were first introduced to the world market, they took off as people liked the idea of the portability and convenience they provided. But progress quickly slowed–it became clear that people missed their regular, paper books. 92% of college students surveyed in a 2016 study prefer regular print books to ebooks.

So, we have to remember that for big businesses to make money, they have to sell their products, and if nobody likes their products, then they will stop making that product. If a product, like a tasteless meal or a paperless book, doesn’t appeal to you or to me, then it’s probably not going to appeal to a lot of people. It’s unreasonable to think that we’re going to end up living in some horrible world with products that everyone hates, because we won’t buy them.

As individuals and consumers, there is one power that nobody can take away from you, and that is the power, however small, of your wallet. In a way, we vote with our wallets. Don’t buy products that you don’t like. Don’t pay for a future that you don’t want to see.

3. Technology has had a lot of positive benefits.

Let’s think about some of the things the author of the other article mentioned and more. First, the following:

“…A new generation is to rise, a smart generation, but definitely not wise. As wisdom comes from all the experiences we all pass through the moment we start dreaming, from all the mistakes and “failures”, our trials and errors. But in 2050, because of the “Shared consciousness where we will be able to directly access more information outside the brain, making us much smarter, with thought access to most of human knowledge.” There will not be any kind of experience taking place as our brain will be equipped with set of guidelines to walk along. To add up to that as mentioned above, “50% of all traditions colleges will collapse paving the way for an entire new education industry to emerge. A surge of micro colleges spring to life, each requiring less than six month of training and apprenticeship to switch professions.” With all this advancements, there will not be any need of taking risks as the mind would already know the outcome, not need of going to school and no need of accessing the mind ourselves. Simply a generation of human robots is to be expected.”

I take issue with this statement–micro colleges are a little extreme, maybe, but I don’t think an alternative education system is a bad thing at all.

I’ll give you an example. I took a very traditional educational path to MIT. I am very lucky. My father made it to the United States and was able to give me a nurturing, educational environment. I went to elementary school, middle school, and high school there. I studied hard. I passed my exams. I completed projects and competitions so that I could get into a competitive school. I studied late at night, every weekday of high school, because I knew I wanted to go to MIT. And now, while in college, I do the same, in order to succeed here.

I have a cousin living in Addis Ababa named Gedion. He grew up in Ethiopia and is very talented with electronics. I even think he belongs here with me, at MIT, because he’s so intelligent and capable. He can do many things that I cannot do. He’s one of those amazing mercato kids, you know? He can fix your laptop, DVD player, iPhone, anything! And can you guess where he learned to do all of that?


Gedion can look up how to fix anything on YouTube and there’s usually something there. He doesn’t go to a regular university, but a two-year trade school in Samit, CMC run by LG. I think that is fantastic. Conventional universities are great options for privileged people who can make it through the conventional education system. But not everyone is like that. Since our world is inherently unequal, not everyone has the same opportunities. Technology can help to make the world more equal, can help give opportunities to people who don’t have it. Gedion is studying electrical engineering and doing just great–I think he’ll be able to change the world when he grows up, thanks to the educational technology we have today. 20 years ago, he wouldn’t have had a chance.

A toy robot Gedion found in Mercato for 20 birr. Like everything else, he’s been trying to fix it in his spare time, for fun.

The real problem we have today is society and culture, not technology. There’s a lot of inequality, poverty, discrimination and hatred embedded in our current global society that make it difficult for people to achieve. As an engineer and a robotics researcher myself, I’m excited about technology, because I think it gives people without opportunities the ability to take things into their own hands. If you are too poor or discriminated against in education (like in some countries where girls cannot go to school) you can now find information anywhere on the internet, if you have access to it. That’s why it’s exciting that more people are getting access. Ethiopia itself has been a global leader in green energy development. Thanks to modern technology, we get to skip the steam engine era of the Western countries (which was horrible) and hopefully, develop in a way that won’t harm our planet so much. That’s exciting too! Everything depends on how you look at it.

Form your own opinions, because you have the freedom to do so. Maybe you decide that in the future, technology will do more harm than good, and that’s fine, there’s an argument for that. Just don’t automatically believe that change is bad. It can be very, very good.

So, today I’d like to present you with a different vision.

It is the year 2050. We have driverless cars, so blind, sick, and elderly people have safe methods of transportation. We have mostly electric vehicles, so carbon emissions on the planet have been steadily decreasing. We’ve developed faster planes. Ethiopia, currently a global leader in clean energy (96% of power in 2011 was from hydroelectricity!) has fully implemented solar photovoltaics across the nation, so now, my family in Kaffa, SNNPR, has access to electricity and clean water without disrupting their beautiful agricultural lifestyle. Since there was no other system already in place, Ethiopia is able to accomplish things no western nation has ever done.
kaffaThis is a photo of Warwara, Kaffa, SNNPR. You would think there’s not much technology there, but a lot of my family members already have some solar panels or equipment, making their lives easier without harming this beautiful land.

But do I even have to go all the way to 2050?

It is today, July 6th, 2016. I walk into my research laboratory at the MIT Media Lab. Today, I am working on 3D printing parts for my research with a small 3D printer. I am working on building a simplified model of a bigger 3D printer. The model twitches back and forth on my desk in response to my computer commands. I’ve grown attached to my work, and have taken to thinking of the model on my desk as my own dysfunctional child, in a way.
The person who sits next to me also 3D prints parts for his 3D printer. We all make printers, and we use printers to make printers. All of them are special.
My team’s 3D printer is special because it is humongous, and we are trying to print houses.
The person next to me has one that prints from the inside out, drawing around itself in a cylinder before popping out and then drawing in the air some more, making itself infinite plastic cocoons. It’s very beautiful.
And there’s a whole table of people who work on one that simply prints glass, which is not simple to make at all.
Then, there’s a team that wants to 3D print organic things, like gelatin and keratin, so that we don’t have to use all this plastic.
And this is why I like being here, because sometimes I am amazed at myself and the other people in the room, and in awe of what everyone is doing. I think if I told what I’m doing and where I am to someone in a certain way, they might not believe me, because it sounds like magic. But it isn’t magic, and that makes it all the more exciting.

I think maybe what we’re missing when we talk and write about technology is that sense of beauty. I think it’s beautiful. We can use it to make our world more beautiful, too.