Can technology set you free?

Thursday 22 November, 6.00pm until 8.00pm, Royal Academy of Engineering, 3 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5DG

Tickets £5/£3. Available here.

Prometheus was severely punished for giving fire and the arts to mankind, but his loss of liberty was our gain. Just what though is the relationship between technology and freedom? Did washing machines liberate women, or was it feminists who demanded washing machines? In what senses are we – in a gadget-filled world – freer today than 50 or 500 years ago? What might it mean, even, when we talk of being made free?

For the developing world, technology has been named ‘the single most transformative tool for development’, while others claim it will destroy – not liberate – traditional communities. Our lives are enriched by technology but we also blame it for taking away our autonomy. The smartphone that makes the daily commute a creative moment is also the device that makes you available 24/7 to the demands of your boss, and indeed your friends. Can we ever be truly free if privacy is a thing of the past, where technology has enabled the accumulation of masses of personal data? Even when there is so much potential to exploit, critics point out that its potential to emancipate humanity might be illusory. But technology is all around us. It makes things faster, smaller, cheaper, and improves how we live, work and entertain. It can empower – removing the shackles of disability and dependency and the housewife’s daily graft. Technology has made travel to the moon and the bottom of the oceans possible, given us artificial hearts and oral contraceptives, mapped our genetic code and even allowed the blind to see again and amputees to run in the Olympics.

Nevertheless, we often seem incapable of handling the change new technology brings. Does it cause a loss of autonomy – or are we more fearful of our inability to withstand change? Should we be much more demanding of what we could get from new kinds of technology? What does the debate about technology say about our sense of purpose and ambition? Perhaps in answering that, we can begin to answer the question of whether or not technology can liberate us, or if the liberated are in the best position to make use of what technology offers.

Dr Mo Ibrahim
global expert in mobile communications; founder, Celtel International; one of TIME's 100 most influential people

Dr Aleks Krotoski
academic and journalist; presenter, BBC Radio 4's The Digital Human and the Guardian's Tech Weekly podcast.

Professor Andy Miah
chair in science communication & digital media, University of Salford

Dr Martyn Thomas
vice-president for external affairs, Royal Academy of Engineering

Professor Judy Wajcman
head, Sociology Department, LSE; research associate, Oxford Internet Institute

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Manisha Lalloo assistant manager, public engagement, Royal Academy of Engineering
Dr Lesley Paterson head, communications and engagement, Royal Academy of Engineering
Recommended readings
China turns to robots as labour costs rise

Automation and robotics are increasingly seen by the farsighted Hong Kong and Taiwan entrepreneurs – who own and operate many of the factories in the province of Guangdong that first sparked the boom in the country’s exports – as a way to keep China’s industrial base competitive.

Rahul Jacob and Sarah Mishkin, Financial Times, 4 October 2012

A Robot With a Reassuring Touch

Baxter, the first product of Rethink Robotics, an ambitious start-up company in a revived manufacturing district here, is a significant bet that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.

John Markoff, New York Times, 18 September 2012

Skilled Work, Without the Worker

At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way. At a sister factory in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility.

John Markoff, New York Times, 18 August 2012

Session partners