How to manage technology flow

As we increasingly view technology as a resource, we must, as a society, rethink our approach to exercising control over technology: from handling individual products and services to controlling a constant stream of technologies to managing technology flow. Here’s why.

Technology is a resource

In the previous post, I shared my view that technology becomes less and less tangible, and as a result our relation to technology becomes more and more remote, even distanced. Where in the past we used to see individual technologies, today we only observe an indiscriminate flow of technology.

Our focus on user experience is a case in point; the visible, tangible hardware is just the container, while the real technological content is invisible and immaterial, it is driven by information and knowledge: What’s “under the hood” is what makes the difference. Just for illustrative purposes, let’s stay with automotive example for a moment. Up until the late 1970s, cars essentially consisted of honest mechanics and an engine. When you looked under the hood, you could touch, see, hear, and even smell the power. Try to do the same with a modern car. When you open the hood, all your senses are disappointed. All you can see and touch are essentially plastic covers; and there’s little to hear, let alone smell. The difference between this car and its competitors is not visible or tangible; today, that difference is in the IT, it’s in the sensors and processors all over the car. And while you might know about the difference in an abstract way, maybe from watching the commercials or reading the specs, you cannot see or feel the difference anymore.

Now, this might seem a rather academic consideration with very little practical meaning. But society’s relation with technology is difficult already, and will grow even more complex if we treat technology as a resource. To get a better feel for that challenge, we first need to remind ourselves why and how we seek to control resource flows.

Controlling conventional resource flow

Historically, scarcity presented the strongest reason for managing the flow of resources. Just consider raw material and energy: their limited availability makes them precious for potential users, and very valuable for those who have access to the sources. The flow of these resources then is subject to market conditions: those with the strongest bargaining power will usually get what the want and need; those in weaker positions have to get along with the little that is left for them.

This seemingly Darwinian model is deeply rooted in the main characteristic of energy and material: they are rival resources. Such types of resources can be used only for one purpose at a time (when you use it, nobody else can). Such types of resources are depleted by use (when you’ve used it, it’s gone). And they are excludable (you can deny somebody access, even if you don’t use it immediately).

Information, however, is a very different thing: information is a non-rival resource. You can use it, I can use it at the same time, everybody can. Further, it isn’t depleted by using it. In Thomas Jefferson’s famous words:

He who receives ideas from me,
receives instruction himself without lessening mine;
as he who lights his taper at mine
receives light without darkening me.

And in addition, information is not excludable, as the effective denial of access is almost impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive. Collectively, the characteristics of a non-rival resource present tremendous challenges for any attempt at controlling information flow: these are technical (e.g., How to effectively prevent unauthorised copies?) as well as economic (e.g., What is the value of a piece of information?) in nature, and we haven’t yet developed widely accepted and effective tools, regulations, or institutions to ensure information flow. All we do definitely know is that the tools that helped us control the flow of rival resources in the past are blunt and ineffective when it comes to managing information flow into the future.

We are in a phase of experimentation; we are still finding out; we do not yet know how to best manage information flow. Currently this experimentation is driven by the significant investments of the global players in the industry, with only marginal oversight of elected governments. That might seem unsatisfactory, even lacking determination and clarity of vision. But when compared to the Industrial Revolution, we shouldn’t be surprised at the current state of the digital revolution, given that we are only a couple of decades into that adventure.

What’s different with technology flow …

When it comes to managing technology flow, the first question is: What type of resource would technology be? Rival and non-rival? Excludable or rather inclusive? And the answer is a definite “both”, as technology has characteristics of both types of resources. And that makes our task even more difficult.

Historically, we have seen technology as something tangible, directly accessible to our senses. Just as in the automotive example above: you could see, touch, hear, and even smell the engine of your car. Back in those days, we understood technology mainly from the perspective of the material our machinery was composed of, and the energy required to keep it going. Consequently, we treated technology as a rival resource: we tried to control technology ideally by keeping it to ourselves or at least by limiting the access to it and by regulating its use.

However, over the last few decades technology has increasingly embraced intangible and immaterial elements. With that ever-growing importance of knowledge and information, technology as a resource has clearly moved toward of the non-rival side, which defies our conventional control approach. And that trend will continue, it is even likely to accelerate. On the other hand, technology will continue to be built from raw material, technology will continue to consume energy; hence technology will inevitable maintain aspects of a rival resource.

Which gets us to the second, the all-important question: Why do we try to steer technology flow at all? Should we not simply let “things play out their natural course“? Well, technology is not a natural resource like coal, ion ore, or food crops; technology is human-made. Therefore, we bear responsibility for “what technology does“, for the outcomes of technology use. And this ethical consideration forces us to try to control technology in such a way that negative impacts of technology use are minimised.

Secondly, there are economic considerations that lead us to seek control over technology flow. Given the time and effort invested in the creation of any new technology, it is natural that the inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors engaged in that creative process want to realise a return on their investment. For that purpose, intellectual property rights and patents are granted to the “creators” of a technology.

Finally, there are political considerations in favour of controlling technology flow. Tariffs are used as trade limitations in order to steer the transfer of technologies in desired directions, often in pursuit of underlying macro-economic objectives. And strict export controls, for example on defence-related technologies, are often influenced by ethical considerations as well.

But regardless of the driving consideration, the tools we have created in the past to control technology flow are better geared for rival resources than for non-rival resources. The utility of these tools will decrease significantly as the relevance of information and knowledge, of the intangibles of technology, will continuously increase. Time to amend our toolbox in order to manage technology flow effectively.

What’s next?

The digital commons and the sharing economy usher in entirely new ways of developing, delivering, and consuming increasing numbers of products, services, and even technologies. These are fundamentally enabled by information technology and the flow of information and knowledge. While all of these new opportunities flourish based on non-rival resources, we must keep in mind the rival resource aspects, the tangible elements of those technologies.

After all, neither the digital commons nor the sharing economy will take shape just by themselves; they are not forces of nature. They are being created by us humans. Therefore we will shape their further evolution, through our intentions, our conscious decisions, and the unintended consequences thereof. And we, as a society, remain responsible for the outcome.

Messy homework

We have to realise that we do not simply exchange traditional rival technology with new, non-rival technologies. Instead, we have to learn how to cope with new technologies that are a mix –a mess even– of rival as well as non-rival aspects. That’s homework for all of us, and we’ll be graded for our effective management of emerging technology flow.

To succeed, we’ll undoubtedly need a lot of creativity and courage. No surprise that I’m curious about your ideas and insights …


4 thoughts on “How to manage technology flow

  1. I believe we also need to be more value oriented and spiritually awakened, so technology gets used for the overall good, not at the cost of many and to benefit only a few.

    1. That’s a great reminder: technology must serve a human purpose. And that should not simply be reduced to a micro-economic benefit for a few. Rather, it should be beneficial for society, for most if not all of us. That’s a goal we should all strive for.
      Thanks a lot for bringing in this perspective.

  2. As the rival aspect of technology as a resource is rather easily understandable from the existing human experience, the management of non-rival technology such as information is already messy by itself. As we walk ourselves through the digital revolution we all agree that we’re still experimenting. The experimentation tends to create great volume of raw data, which then can be carefully examined, thoroughly processed and manipulated in a way that “tangible” information is created in form of scientific results. And (to close the loop of the IKM pyramid model) as soon as the processed data become useful information, then can be studied in combination with other available information and eventually create knowledge. Let’s assume that we have the technology and the processes to manage data and information. How can we effectively manage the knowledge and who can benefit from it? If we are unable to manage our accumulated knowledge then there is no added value for technology and the society. I believe this is a great challenge for the near future. Apart from “technology” and “processes”, the third element of effective IKM management is “people” as primary users, but according to a Gartner study, by 2017, 33% of Fortune100 organizations will experience an information crisis, due to their inability to effectively value, govern and trust their enterprise information. …and this mess is only for part of the non-rival technology management. Not sure if “amending our toolbox” will be enough, or if we might need a change of paradigm in technology flow management.

    1. Thanks for sharing.
      Yes, there are a lot of unknowns as we experiment our way forward. The handling of data-information-knowledge is one of the big drivers, and it affects large parts of the techno-sphere, including what used to be very tangible in the past (think about classical toolmachinery or automotive).
      You make an important observation on the toolbox: probably new, additional, or different tools to manage technology flow will not be good enough. I agree that it’s highly likely that our very concept of technology control is about to be disrupted. And as a result, neither ‘tool’ nor ‘box’ would have the same meaning anymore.

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