The Nature of Technological Progress

The Dualism of Technology

This entry is Part 3 of the Exponential series. In Part 2, I discussed how technology (or more fundamentally, information) grows exponentially. Here I discuss how technology is best understood as a neutral force. These ideas will connect with many of Bruno Latour‘s.

Like a vehicle, technology is steered by its users. There’s always someone ‘behind the wheel’, so to speak, even if they aren’t obvious. Even if things get tricky, for instance a driverless car, there are still countless unseen engineers ‘behind the wheel’, as well as the driver themselves. The point is, it’s hard – if not impossible – to take technology out of its social context. Technology is ultimately a reflection of ourselves.

First things first: Technology is basically magic. At least, it seems like that more each day. This growth is exciting; even worth celebrating. But it’s also important to remember: Technology doesn’t really do any work for us. All it does is amplify the work we’re already doing. There is, and never will be, a supreme technology with an “Optimize” button that we can push repeatedly to solve all our problems. Indeed, the optimizations must always be our own — but we can (and should!) use technology to deliver them.

All technology does is amplify the human behind ‘behind the wheel’, so to speak. That, indeed, is the main point of this article. Consider it a crash-course in Actor-Network Theory.

Today, we live free of most natural dangers. Next year’s harvest looks good, and a person’s chances of being ambushed by a pack of saber tooth tigers have dropped drastically. On the other hand, modern society has produced many more artificial dangers. Technological progress always comes at a cost; for every great innovation, there comes the potential for that innovation’s misuse. With technology comes trade-offs. The good news is that these trade-offs can often be mitigated through careful design, legislation, and built-in countermeasures to prevent misuse.

To offer one example of technology’s dualism, consider how smartphones simultaneously connect and separate people. Mobile phones allow us to speak with people halfway around the world, but only at the expense of ignoring everyone in our immediate vicinity. On buses and in airports, people immerse themselves in their own personal universes, shielded from the outside world by earbuds and glowing screens. Tech simultaneously distracts us from the environment while simultaneously connecting us more to it.

Without our guidance, technology will create an equal number of problems and solutions. Technology, like fire, has to be directed in order for it to be useful. This may seem obvious or irrelevant, but it signals the need for a more involved effort from consumers, who ultimately control the direction of the tech economy to begin with. It also calls for a new kind of job – someone who considers not only the economic implications of new technologies, but also the potential social or psychological effects.

Uncontrolled markets and exponential technologies don’t mix, especially when our terrestrial home has limited resources. If we just build technology without a plan, then we get a raging, uncontrollable inferno. But if we gain better control over the growth of technology, and make it a true reflection of society’s real interests (which span environmental, health, governmental, and social interests — technology is not simply an economic entity!) — then we can use technology to create a future we all want.

As I see it, the only real threat of exponential growth is environmental degradation — it is impossible to sustain exponential growth with finite resources — as well as the problem of a fragmented or divided society that comes all too often with the arrival of new technologies — two problems that are easily avoided if we keep our eyes on the global picture and focus on our top priorities.

Harnessing the Power of Technology

Technology is like a big vehicle collectively steered by society, science, governments, and individuals all at the same time. Of course, we’re trying to go in every direction at once… and as technology improves in both price-performance and ability (as predicted by Moore’s Law), we aren’t going to be able to slow down, but we can steer — that is, if we can agree on a direction. To achieve this, we should agree on a social contract; a new set of guidelines to govern the use of technology and optimize its abilities for our species’ goals.[1] Otherwise, technology’s explosive growth will be unguided; without direction or purpose – which can be unpredictable. The whole idea of “technology for good” or “technology for the planet” is one we need to emphasize over the next 10-15 years, because it grants us perspective; it literally keeps us grounded.

We Direct Technology

Technology amplifies the human condition, and as we have seen, the human condition is dualistic. Technology is a reflection of human character, and we are a reflection of it.[2]

Technology is neither good or bad, but awareness of that duality also gives us the power to change it through design. If we know that technology has equal potential for good and bad, we if we can factor that knowledge into its usage, then we can preempt and anticipate the potential misuses of technology, and prevent those mistakes from ever happening. If technology is a double-edged sword, then all we have to do is sharpen one side and dull the other, so to speak. It’s all about defining what we want technology to be, in a social context.

Onward to Part 4 »

  1. Homo Evolutis – we have entered a new evolutionary phase — one that does not act on biology, but rather on memes and ideas.
  2. The Law of Accelerating Returns – because technology grows exponentially, so does human knowledge.
  3. The Nature of Technological Progress – technology presented as a neutral force.
  4. Ethical Standards for New Technologies – a new social contract to govern the use of emerging technologies.
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. We should also preempt misuses of new technologies and factor that knowledge into future designs. This will be discussed in the next part of the series.
  2. Technology is socially constructed, but it also affects society in sometimes unpredictable ways (see actor-network theory).

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