Pushing a rope … ??

The longer I think about it, the more I cannot hide the impression that our approach to innovation, and to technology in specific, is similar to pushing a rope. To some extent, that reasoning constitutes part four to the two part series on expectations and realities (see parts one, two, and three). Let me explain.

We have developed some understanding for the way in which technology develops and matures over time. We understand that a technology is built from components that are themselves technologies, and that technology evolves in a path-dependent way: the history of a technology matters for its future. Looking back we can see how that technology developed and matured into the shape and use that we know today. That is retrospect, that is hindsight. We can tell that story after it happened. And that’s one of the realities about technology.

Then there is the expectation that we could potentially predict the future story line. But could that be realistic? In our earlier discussion we didn’t come across any deterministic characteristic of technology evolution. On the contrary, we found a number of traits that clearly run counter to that expectation, including the co-evolution of technology domains with society. If we are serious and honest to ourselves, then there is no good reason to believe in the prediction of the future path of technology at large and in the long-term. [I must confess that for very short-term and specific uses of technology there might be a greater likelihood to forecast a next step. But that is relevant only in a very narrowly constrained perspective and does not apply at the societal level I’m addressing here.]

Putting things into perspective, I’d offer the following: while it is correct that the history of a technology matters for its future, that history does not determine the future. It would be a stretch too far assuming that history contains everything necessary to pave the way forward. In fact essential elements are missing in that view: technology always develops and matures in the context of its use, of the purpose society wants it to fulfil. And that purpose is “determined” only as a result of the interaction between society and technology that Brian Arthur described as mutual adaptation. The exact path of that co-evolution is “defined” by serendipity at work.

Of course this view is in stark contrast to the widespread desire to control technology. But I’ll continue arguing that we must get used to the idea that we are not (and never were) in a position to control technology in a deterministic, top-down, demand-driven approach.

As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it so eloquently:

Life can only be understood backwards,
but it must be lived forwards.

In my own, less subtle words: We shouldn’t try to manoeuvre the traffic ahead by staring at the rearview mirror. That would be as useless as pushing a rope.

Now you might ask where my usual optimism went. Well, with no intention to split hairs, my rejecting the idea of deterministic control over the path technology will take into the future leaves ample room for society to influence that path indirectly. And that is a question of the environment or organisational frame that a society creates to support innovation, to promote science and technology, to facilitate economic transactions, and in general to fulfil society’s needs.

That is a question about institutions, and that’s going to be the next stop on my learning journey.


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