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Does technology really make us more efficient?

Words by Jacintha Scheerder

Photos by Sophie Wright

Futurologist Jacintha Scheerder sat down with Martijntje Smits, philosopher of technology and innovation sciences scholar, to talk about the bond between technology, nature, humans and our ability to focus.

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. A shift that will redefine what cities are. How do you think nature in cities will change?

We have already redefined nature. Nature is something that exists by itself, without human intervention. Humans are nature, too, but it’s an increasingly distant bond. We wear contact lenses and get artificial hips, that’s far from natural.

There’s a difference between culture and nature, and we have a tendency to put the latter on a pedestal. We see nature as something separate from ‘the city’, as an opposite entity. It’s always city versus countryside, nature versus concrete.

The separation of nature and culture is one of the first distinctions we make in the symbolic order. Every culture has these opposites: chaos and order, heaven and earth, men and women, these are distinctions we create as a culture. But when you start questioning those distinctions, things get confusing. 

What trends do you see developing in cities, in terms of technology and focus?

Focus used to be a given, something everyone had or could develop, but it’s becoming a rare commodity. Focus can be trained, but these days it does require a certain competence. The world around us is filled with distractions: we went from getting letters every now and then to receiving emails constantly. The Internet is one of the biggest disturbances when it comes to focus.

In terms of trends, there’s a strong tendency towards efficiency. We want everything to be as efficient as possible and are looking to developments like robots and other technology to cater to this desire. This might seem like a step towards a better, more focused world, but on a management level, it just causes more work and stress.

Is the modern drive towards efficiency a positive or a negative trend?

We should be questioning the paradigm of efficiency. Our car takes us where we want to go faster, but it also adds stress. Emails are easier because we don’t have to walk to the post office and wait for our letters, but now we’re overwhelmed with messages every day. It’s a world that’s becoming not only more efficient but also more hectic and suffocating and less focused. But we still cling to that promise of efficiency, because we think it might improve our lives, but it won’t.

There are signs of people moving away from this false promise of efficiency, a movement that values solidarity, social cohesion and balance over technology and efficiency. It’s not a movement against the system like you saw in the 1970s and 80s, but one that simply develops its own systems and solutions. One that lets capitalism be, but decides not to participate in that rat race by working less, living slow and valuing experiences over big homes and fancy cars.

How can this movement towards being more focused develop across all levels of society?

Governments should be facilitating this need to bring back focus, these movements, and embrace a bottom-up approach. City government should be asking themselves what methods really add something to the wellbeing of a city. The answer to that question isn’t some big corporation or developer, the answer is something that caters to citizens first and foremost. Like city gardens that can be maintained by neighbourhood residents in exchange for a discount on government taxes. Working in a garden together can also foster more social cohesion, and it’s great for both your physical and mental health. Don’t go for big private partnerships, work with your citizens!

Do you know of any green technologies that could actually reverse or lessen the negative effects other technologies have on focus?

It’s not really a technology, but a theory. Working together to grow greener cities can contribute to your own ability to focus. If you look at it through the device paradigm philosophy, coined by philosopher Albert Borgmann, it’s the difference between a commodity and a focal technology. Say you have a water well and a faucet. The water well is a focal technology, because it takes effort to pull up water and you have to maintain the well together to make sure it doesn’t dry out. The faucet is a commodity, you turn it on and you have an endless, effortless supply of water. Green in the city should be a focal technology, not a commodity. Something you build from the ground up, together. Green spaces will have more effect on people if they feel responsible for them and don’t take them for granted.

Are you curious to learn more about Martijntje Smits and her vision on focus and efficiency? Keep an eye on the Let it Grow social channels to find out how to get access to more in-depth content soon.