Society’s ambiguity

Over the last few days I’ve been pondering that maybe I need to write a part 3 to the two-part series on expectations and realities. No kidding. It seems that I missed an important aspect of our unrealistic expectations: the ambiguous attitude towards technology that runs through today’s western societies.

Even in these technologically advanced societies, we are faced with a wide spectrum of perspectives. On one side, you’ll find boundless optimism that technology is the panacea for just about any type of challenge. On the other side, there is the deeply rooted suspicion that technology actually is the root cause of our challenges. You might think about optimists in one camp, and the sceptics in the other.

Optimists make their point quoting historic facts. They like to refer to the explosion of prosperity and quality of life that took place since the Industrial Revolution. They argue from a macro perspective that every economic trend kept going up, up, up. And they don’t see any reason why that should change. Well, in Is growth inevitable? I already expressed my view that such trend lines cannot be extrapolated into eternity.

In Innovation is all good. Isn’t it …?? I argued that we must be honest to ourselves and acknowledge that despite the best intent, innovation has negative impact. Obviously, the sceptics are very ready to embrace that idea. They tend to focus their argument more on the effect of new technologies on the individual. They argue that new technology directly substitutes jobs and creates unemployment, hence they are concerned over the changes the technology brings.

The main difference between optimists and sceptics is in the role they see for society. The optimists believe in technology as a positive force that works its magic best when it is not constrained or limited by society. The sceptics on the other side would like society to tightly manage technology development in order to keep any potential negative effect at bay. This is essentially a question of societal control of technology, and that is what we find at the heart of society’s ambiguity.

This ambiguity is not simply the result on human nature and our imperfect grasp of reality. There is a deeper reason that is directly related to the way in which technology develops and matures over time. David Collingridge captured this challenge in his 1980 book on “The Social Control of Technology”:

When change is easy,
the need for it cannot be foreseen;
when the need for change is apparent,
change has become expensive, difficult and time consuming.

Known as the Collingridge Dilemma, this elegant formulation basically observes two extreme ends of a spectrum:

  • At the beginning of the evolution of a technology, we do not know, we cannot judge its future impact. But at this time, it would still be easy to exert control over the further course of that development, for example to re-direct it or to limit its distribution.
  • When a technology is fully evolved, we can clearly see its impact, its intended effects as well as its unintended consequences. We can thus define what we would like to change, how we would want to control that technology. Yet at that time, because that technology is already “out there”, because it is widely distributed and used, our means to control it are very limited.

In the first instance, we have control but lack knowledge. In the second case, we have knowledge, but lack control. In-between, the more we know the less we control. From that perspective, it seems no big wonder that parts of society are weary of technology.

But that’s not the real issue. The question is not “How much control is appropriate or desirable?“, because that’s too simplistic. Far more fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves: “What are we trying to control?” and “Are we at all in a position to control that?

If you followed my arguments so far, you will easily see my point: the co-evolution of technology and society and their mutual adaptation defy any linear logic of simple cause-effect-relations that could allow for straightforward control of technology. And as a result, any discussion about more or less control is futile as long as we do not know the multiple inter-relations, –dependencies, –actions between society and the evolution of technology.

That said, I’d rephrase our dilemma like this:

Aren’t we trying to control something that we don’t understand ?
Shouldn’t we rather try to understand something that we don’t control ?

The truth is somewhere in the middle. To my mind, there’s too much energy wasted on the first, and too little effort invested in the second. Hence that’s what I want to contribute to: better understanding.

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