Has technology saved us from a dystopian future, or created one

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- A stunning photo has emerged from this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It shows a conference hall full of attendees with View-Master-style virtual reality contraptions strapped onto their faces, computers teetering on laps, and a beaming Mark Zuckerberg walking past them all.

At first glance, the photograph is reminiscent of one of the most stunning television ads ever made: Apple's "1984," which introduced Steve Jobs' new Macintosh computer. Directed by Ridley Scott -- famous for science-fiction films such as "Blade Runner" and "Alien" -- the ad depicts a room full of zombie-like individuals staring at a Big Brother-like face on a giant screen while a female athlete carrying a giant sledgehammer is being chased by cops in riot gear. She runs into the room, throws the sledgehammer at the screen and blows it up as the voiceover says: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"

The message: Technology is your means of escaping groupthink. We were supposed to all become hammer throwers, but it didn't turn out that way.

Fast-forward 32 years. In the photo of Zuckerberg demonstrating Facebook's virtual reality technology, "Gear VR," developed in partnership with Samsung, Zuckerberg is the athlete with the sledgehammer and we're all the zombies with his gear strapped to our faces.

The Apple ad has indeed become reality -- except that technology has made us all slaves to it, rather than facilitating our independence and individuality. Right?

Not quite.

Something critical has been left out of this equation: human choice. It's up to each of us to choose whether to be a Zuckerberg or just another zombie in the crowd. And it's not a matter of shunning technology -- Zuckerberg and Jobs certainly didn't -- but rather mastering it to make it work for us instead of letting it control us.

The greatest thing about technology is exactly what that old Apple commercial depicts: It allows you to opt out of convention and groupthink. You can get information and news from a variety of sources and in various languages, and translate it with a single click. You can create something and even fundraise independently to support your efforts. You can connect with people all over the world to find your own "ground truth." You can communicate in any manner imaginable for free. You can find a more efficient way of executing almost any given task. You can search for work and housing on the other side of the world and expand your opportunities. The best uses of technology involve facilitating useful real-life activities -- particularly those that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible.

The person who uses technology to conduct research, to take courses, to learn a language, and to find networking or professional opportunities is going to be in a much better competitive position than someone who uses it to pollute the Internet with selfies and comments about his relatively banal daily activities. Every day you make a choice as to which sort of person you're becoming in an increasingly competitive era of globalization.

Tragically, far too many people are failing to reach their technological potential. Seduced by the escapism that technology facilitates, they devote a disproportionate amount of their life to complaining or venting on social media, arguing with virtual strangers, mouthing off or kissing up to celebrities who are too busy working and making millions to respond, and generally distracting themselves from more productive activities. Admittedly, some of this is fun and has its place like any other form of entertainment, but some perspective is critical. Would Zuckerberg have become such an innovator if he had been busy blogging about his life for strangers all day? Highly doubtful. No one is a victim of technology, only of their own choices.

On the upside, there seems to be an encouraging generational shift taking place. The kids who have grown up immersed in technology from birth, and who don't know the world through any other lens, seem to be gravitating to more private platforms that allow limited sharing between smaller groups of friends. Their generation is more likely to view technology as a mere tool at their disposal rather than an addictive toy.

These younger users of technology are like the French kids who are given a choice of milk or wine at the dinner table and tend to grow up with a sensible perspective on alcohol. Those who grew up before the Internet Age tend to be like the American kids who start binging on alcohol uncontrollably once they hit drinking age because it's so new and addictive to them.

Those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era are susceptible to binges. But how we handle technology's siren song is a matter of choice. Every dystopian tech scenario has winner and losers. No one is a victim of fate. Only you can determine which side you'll be on.