The Human Shield Against Technology

As our columnist, Baratunde Thurston, returns to the comedic news mines, he leaves us with insights about managing technology in our lives.

The Human Shield Against Technology
[Illustration: Kirsten Ulve]

When I started writing this column in 2012, I worked for The Onion, where my job focused on growing the satirical publication’s digital presence. Three years later, I’ve returned full time to the comedic news business, working as a producer for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and focusing on…wait for it…digital expansion.


It may appear that I’m back where I started, but for the addition of two white hairs in my beard and a more careful tweeting style than the one that accidentally spammed all of The Onion’s followers and was the subject of my first piece. In writing my 32 columns in this space, though, I’ve learned a lot about how our digital and analog worlds intersect, and with this, my last piece (for now), I want to reflect on what all those words add up to. Okay, fine, you can call this my manifesto.

Too often our technologists, business leaders, and media celebrate technology as if it were a thing unto itself. We get caught up in the newness and project wisdom onto what is essentially a tool. Next time you find yourself saying, “We need to add more technology,” substitute the word pickles for technology. Tech has no inherent truth or goodness. It is what we do with it that matters. Same with healthy food: It only helps us if we eat it. See? Pickles? It works.

We must hold tech companies to a higher standard. Perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the age at which one turns into one’s mother, but I’m not so much mad at tech company behavior as I am disappointed. “Innovation” should not solely be the province of the white upper middle class and its values. We need products that also serve black and brown folks and the rest of society. And if technologists are going to disrupt intimacy and children’s education and trust and redemption, then they need to care about how their product decisions affect the rest of us.

If tech tools are going to hold a central place in our lives, we need more thoughtful design that reckons with that dominant role. When companies use our trust as a conduit to spur their own growth or make it intentionally difficult to
unsubscribe or unplug even temporarily, we pay for those abuses. Our lack of understanding, and control over, how our data is being used costs us real money and time. The next time a tech company forces you to sign a “terms of service” agreement, ask yourself why that company doesn’t have to sign a similar agreement with you.

We must humanize technology (and the businesses driving it) by bringing humanities back into the picture. Most problems that matter need more than computational and algorithmic power to solve them. Efficiently locating the nearest taco truck is an engineering challenge. Compassionately transitioning a workforce disrupted by rapid global change is an even bigger one. These types of problems need art, humor, emotion, and deliberation. They require us to roll in the unsavory, unattractive, tension-laden parts of our lives and wrestle with our imperfection.

I’m neither Luddite nor naysayer, but something like a skeptical optimist. What we need is a broader view of how tech can be a force for societal good rather than a drag on it. Technology is a helper, not a thing unto itself. Think about it this way: “Tech and…”


We need tech and social justice.
Tech and humanity.
Tech and perspective.
And always pickles.