(Mis)understanding Technology…

…Why 140 Characters is Better than a Flying Car

Progress is a funny thing.  As Bruce Gibney noted in the Founders Fund Manifesto, we were expecting to have flying cars by now, but ended up with 140 characters instead.  What gives?

And Mr. Gibney isn’t the only one to question progress. From Nassim Taleb to Evgeny Morozov, a fair number of highly intelligent and very well informed people are arguing that, for all of the hubbub, what we consider to be technological progress isn’t really all that meaningful.

I believe that much of the criticism stems from a misunderstanding about the function and purpose of technology.

While skeptics are right to point out that the basic functionality of many inventions hasn’t improved for decades (or even centuries), our goal for the future should not be to merely improve upon the past, but to advance beyond it.

The Great Debate

Probably the strongest critic of technological progress is Robert Gordon, who published an influential paper on the subject.  His argument is twofold.  Firstly, he contends that we are facing six headwinds (e.g. aging population, debt, pollution, etc.) that reduce productivity growth.

Secondly, he points to indications that the progress of the industrial age was driven by one-time events, such as the discovery of the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and electricity, while the productivity improvements of the computer age have been short lived and won’t be able to overcome the six headwinds he identified.

On the other side is Erik Brynjolfsson who argues in his book (along with Andrew McAfee) that information technology provides accelerating returns which are just beginning to filter into the physical world.  In his view, the new industrial revolution, driven by robots and algorithms, has just begun.

(Brynjolfsson and Gordon presented and then debated their arguments at TED 2013.  I’ve included the videos at the end of this post).

With all due respect to both men, I feel that their arguments fall short in that they focus on dueling statistics and largely miss the underlying societal change that technology brings about.  As longtime technology observer Rishad Tobaccowala often says, the future does not fit in the containers of the past.

(Mis)Understanding Technology

At the heart of the confusion is a misunderstanding of what drives technology.  Both Gordon and Brynjolfsson focus on the things that we build.  However, as Martin Heidegger argued in his landmark 1950 essay, we don’t build technology as much as we uncover it and put it to use in a particular context (a process he refers to as “enframing”).

He gives the example of a hydroelectric dam:

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command.

So the dam itself isn’t technology, but its agent, much like Facebook and Twitter aren’t social networks, but tools for uncovering particular truths about human relationships that have always existed.  It is through unlocking those forces that we advance.

Therefore, to compare computers with steam engines and electricity desperately misses the point.  It is not the tools of technology that we should be focusing on, but the opportunities that we are presented with when natural forces are revealed and put to good use.

Building Dwelling Thinking

Everybody is deeply affected by the particular context in which they live and work. Gordon, for example, is a 72 year-old economist who dedicated his career to the study of broad macroeconomic trends, while Brynjolfsson is a 51 year-old economist who works alongside the technological wizards at MIT.

Heidegger, was a German who was deeply affected by World War II.  In the late 40’s and early 50’s Germany was in shambles; physically, economically and in spirit.  It was during this period that he wrote, Building Dwelling Thinking, in which he argued that rebuilding Germany would entail much more than the mere construction of edifices.

However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains, the real plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses.  The real plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, older also than the increase of the earth’s population and the condition of the industrial workers. The real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.

It is much the same way with technology.  The forces we uncover and put to use will have a profound effect on what we build, how we live and how we think.  Much like the automobile enabled suburbs, shopping malls and the consumer culture, the new information age is changing how we work, design our cities and see our place in the world.

Therefore, it is misguided, if not dangerous, to try to judge new technology in the context of old paradigms.  Completely different forces are being uncovered and put to wholly distinctive uses.  A supersonic flight will always be subject to the limits of Newtonian physics; a Skype call is not.

In my own particular context of spending most of my adult life in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe, I have been able to see this effect up close.  While it takes decades to build infrastructure, the benefits of the information age are diffused at lightning speed. Research suggests that the effect in Asia and Africa may be even more dramatic.

However, it is not the forces of energy trapped in chemical bonds or even the awesome power of the atom that we are now beginning to unleash, but human potential itself. While that may not manifest itself in large physical artifacts or supersonic speed, it matters, possibly more so than anything that has come before.

The Economics of Well-Being

The advancements of the 20th century were impressive.  Human and animal labor were replaced by machine power, enabling us to build massive structures and overcome the limits of time, distance and physical endurance.  The result was a massive increase in economic output and life expectancy and an equally important reduction in poverty

However, while everybody would like to have more material wealth, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that beyond a certain point it does us little good.  For example, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has found that there is little benefit from income gains beyond a household income of $75,000.

And so, by evaluating new technology through old metrics we ignore the economics of well-being and risk confusing value creation with value capture.  Does a banker with a multimillion-dollar bonus really represent a greater contribution than Tim-Berners-Lee or Linus Torvalds? .

In a similar vein, is the Skype call between my child and her grandmother on another continent really worthless because its free?  Should we evaluate fossil fuels, which are detrimental to our health and contribute to health care costs, the same way we do clean technology that has a much smaller environmental footprint?

In the final analysis, the value of a technology isn’t its capacity to improve on achievements of the past but to unlock the potential of a better future.

image credit: 140characters.ie

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Greg Satell is an internationally recognized authority on Digital Strategy and Innovation. He consults and speaks in the areas of digital innovation, innovation management, digital marketing and publishing, as well as offshore web and app development. His blog is Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.

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