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. Like a hammer, it has equal ability to create or destroy. Similarly, language (or more fundamentally, information) can be used to bring people together or to draw them apart. It, too, has no control over its use. Another example is fire, which we usually associate with tragedy and burning buildings. Yet, without fire, we would never have made it out of the Stone Age. 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 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. There are trade-offs.

Another example is how technology simultaneously connects and separates people. Mobile phones allow us to speak with people halfway around the world, but only at the expense of neglecting 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.

Without guidance, technology will create an equal number of problems and solutions. Technology, like fire, must be directed in order for it to be useful.

Harnessing the Power of Technology

Technology can be imagined as the vehicle that is steered by society. As technology improves in both price-performance and ability (as predicted by Moore’s Law), we may not be able to slow down, but we can steer. If technology is a double-edged sword, then all we have to do is make it work for us – sharpen one side and dull the other, so to speak. To achieve this, we must agree on a social contract – a new set of guidelines to govern the use of technology and optimize its benefits.[1]

We Direct Technology

Technology amplifies the human condition, and as we know, 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. If we can preempt and anticipate the potential misuses of technology, we can prevent those mistakes from ever happening.

Onward to Part 4 »

  1. The Age of Species-Directed Evolution – humans 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 unpredictable ways.

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