Telling good from bad technological change – three types of disruption

Technological progress is accelerating. Developments is different areas are going to compound each other, resulting in ever faster and disruptive change. Take for example Klaus Schwab’s description of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, where he outlines the interacting developments in information technology, bio-tech and materials sciences. Others use the more extensive BRINE (bio-robo-info-nano-energy) categories to describe those developments.

Those trends and drivers have to be viewed ambivalently – they promise prosperity and sustainability while at the same time threatening our economies and societies in potentially existential ways. Technologies offer solutions to many of the problem we face, by reducing resource consumption, helping the decarbonisation of our economies, elevating poverty, increase participation of disempowered people globally and poviding new means of strengthening civil societies. On the other hand, they may entrench our current non-sustainable behaviour, tear societies apart and threaten civil liberties. There are plenty of extensive coverages of these themes. Thomas Friedman’s “Thank you for being late” tends to the optimistic side, while clearly acknowledging the dangers, as does Schwab. Al Gores’s “The Future” is much more concerned and rather failing to see the upsides. Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Discipline” is fully optimistic when it comes to the potential of tech to bring about a sustainable lifestyle – also not being fully balanced.

How can we navigate through this ambivalence? How can we tell good tech from bad tech?

I think of three rough categories which can be helpful to clarify of the different effect we may experience, which I call “global-village”, “life-support” and “playing-god”. I think that these three themes very well capture the different angles of the effects of technological change.

  • Global-village. His is meant to include all those technologies related to the sharing economy, social networks, marketplaces. In many ways, what they achieve is just a scaling of small world (“village”) behaviours to the global scale. For instance, in a small world, people know who I am, what I like to buy and someone would borrow me their car or their couch. Obviously, the degree to which those offering become global and powerful can create threats, while it may also increase capital efficiency and may even strengthen civil society (check Zuckerberg’s long letter to get a flavour of this). On balance, it may be that given that those changes are not qualitative, but just quantitatively different to the past, we might get a grip on those, providided the right adaptations, responses and policies towards negative developments we encounter.
  • Life-support. Means to describe those technologies which help dealing with supplying our global population and our economies with the energy and material flows they need in a long term sustainable way. This is the plumping of Buckminster Fuller’s spaceship earth. We live in closed and finite system Earth, with no way to resupply, and should hence be able to live from renewable energies and cyclical material flows. Everything that supports that vision, wind and solar power, energy efficiency, e-mobility potentially falls into this category. Technological change here is intrinsically good – given that it truly delivers what it promises. The downside is that we create risks that achieve exactly the opposite – take gene-tech, geo-engineering, etc. It is not bad to succeed here. Rather, it is the severe risk of not succeeding which should concern us.
  • Playing-god. Partly being the extension of the first two categories, this is about the aim for mastery and control of things, be it Artificial General Intelligence, human genetic improvements, space colonisation and totalitarian regimes. Those endeavours promise tremendous potential for humanity (think of immortality, happiness and wealth for all), but also stretch the notion of what it means to be human. Many of these themes show up for instance in Bostrom’s “Superintelligence. It is this category which deserves the most attention and refinement when it comes to evaluating possible long term shifts.

What can we use this for? I feel that each category comes with specific and distinct requirements in terms of research programmes, policy and regulatory frameworks and required public discourse. This blog will continue in picking up those threats – to learn what we have to do to direct technological change to the better of the world, and not towards the worse.

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