The Nature of Technological Progress

Or, 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.

Technology has no control over its use. Fire is probably the best metaphor, because of its ability to both create and destroy. It all depends on how technology is harnessed and for what reason. Clearly, we benefit from technology – but it is a force that works in two directions.

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 created many more artificial dangers. Technological progress always seems to come at a price; 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 making us more aware if 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 any possible social or psychological effects.

Uncontrolled markets and exponential technologies don’t mix, especially when our terrestrial home has very finite resources. If we just build technology without a plan, we get a raging, uncontrollable inferno. But if we gain better control over the growth of technology, and help make it a 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) and the potential for technology to fragment or divide society — 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 can be imagined as a vehicle that is steered by society, science, and the state at the same time. It amplifies our abilities and enables us to go farther than ever before. Of course, we’re trying to go every direction at once, and as technology improves in both price-performance and ability (as predicted by Moore’s Law), we won’t be able to slow down, but we can steer — that is, if we can agree on where we want to go. To achieve this, we have to agree on a social contract – a new set of guidelines to govern the use of technology and optimize its benefits for our goals.[1] Otherwise, technology’s explosive growth will be unguided; malformed; without a purpose. The whole idea of “technology for a purpose” is one we need to emphasize in the coming years, because it grants us perspective; 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 introduces the power to change it. If we know that technology has equal potential for good and bad, we can factor that knowledge into its usage – and its design. If we can preempt and anticipate the potential misuses of technology, then we can 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 only a matter of defining what we want technology to be in a social context. What should we define as “being human” in the 21st century?

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 seires.
  2. Technology is socially constructed, but it also affects society in sometimes unpredictable ways (see actor-network theory).

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