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The technological bright blue yonder?

Summary:
From Peter Radford One of the greatest shifts subsequent to the rise of machinery and industrialization is the social acceptance of apparently  never-ending technological change.  A change, moreover, that we are told will inevitably lead us all towards an improved, more prosperous, healthier, and happier existence.  That this future cannot be precisely determined or known to us is set aside, we simply accept the drumbeat of change and presume the rest. Or at least that’s one view.  How else to explain the great contrast between the social reaction to new technologies back at the onset of industrialization and our contemporary reaction?  The one was tempestuous and riddled through with hostility, questions, and counter-attack by the workers affected by the introduction of the first

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from Peter Radford

One of the greatest shifts subsequent to the rise of machinery and industrialization is the social acceptance of apparently  never-ending technological change.  A change, moreover, that we are told will inevitably lead us all towards an improved, more prosperous, healthier, and happier existence.  That this future cannot be precisely determined or known to us is set aside, we simply accept the drumbeat of change and presume the rest.

Or at least that’s one view.  How else to explain the great contrast between the social reaction to new technologies back at the onset of industrialization and our contemporary reaction?  The one was tempestuous and riddled through with hostility, questions, and counter-attack by the workers affected by the introduction of the first machines.  The second simply elicits a resigned acceptance, confusion, and highly muted criticism by the workers affected by the latest wave of automation.  No one nowadays wants to be labeled a “luddite”.  No one wants to appear opposed to advance.  No one wants to question the efficacy of the decisions made by our latter day innovators and self-styled “disruptors”.

We have become inured to technological change.  Far from being an exciting frontier-extending aspect of life, full of promise and allure, technological change is now a routine, almost humdrum, background noise.  Our lives are unsettled by comparison with our ancestors.  Our traditions have very short shelf-lives.  And our expectation is that how we live today is not how our children, let alone our grandchildren, will live their lives.   Our culture, in other words, has taken on board fully the narrative that technology is always on the march and that we will have to adjust to accommodate it, no matter how awkward that accommodation might be.

Technological determinism is, of course, one of those topics that gets academics highly exercised. It’s a bit like the very idea of the industrial revolution.  Was it a revolution? Was it just an acceleration?  Or was all that change simply a continuum unworthy of note?  Does technology alter society? Or does society create the fertile ground for new technology?

Either way, I think it’s pretty clear that our attitudes towards technology and its seemingly endless changes is a great deal different from that of a generation living through early industrialization.

There was an excellent little book of essays published back in the early 1990s titled “Does Technology Drive History?”.  It included Robert Heilbroner’s provocative 1967 essay “Do Machines Make History?”, but that essay was not the first in the book.  That honor went to a short piece written by the historian M. L. Smith titled “Recourse on Empire” which explores the cultural significance of technological change in the U.S.  That essay begins thus:

“One of the social effects of technological change is that it prompts cultures to wonder where they are heading.  In the United States, generations of leaders and pundits have mistaken technology for the answer, rather than the question.  The artifacts of technological innovation — electric lights, automobiles, airplanes, personal computers — have come to signify progress, as well as ever-receding goals toward which we are said to be progressing.  In countless ads and speeches, twentieth-century Americans have been asked to visualize the future as a succession of unimaginable new machines and products.”

In the subsequent paragraphs Smith uses two iconic illustrations drawn from publications. separated by about ninety years to demonstrate the way in which we have been educated to think about technology and its possibilities.  The first, from 1868, creates an expectation of boundlessness, of adventure, and of an unknown future filled with expectation.  The second is the very different.  Drawn in 1952 it extrapolates from an almost unknown past and draws the eye into the future past a steady parade of images drawn from the era of industrialization.  It doesn’t point out into the unknown so much as out into the prospect of endless invention using icons that would have been well known at the time such as atomic and industrial symbols in association with imagined end products such as space travel and what appear to be sleek modes of transport.  The first was filled with an arrogance of belief and purpose.  The second with an arrogance of accomplishment and endeavor.  Together they trace the triumphalism of our embrace of technology.

As Smith says at the outset, relentless technological advance causes us to wonder were we are headed.  Towards some sort of technological nirvana were the rigors of physical labor are the province of machines and we are left to indulge in short workweeks and luxurious leisure — was Keynes predicted in his famous essay on the topic?  Or towards some dystopian trap where we live in a world of constant surveillance and authoritarian imposed toil mediated by anonymous algorithmic overlords.

Probably neither, but it gives pause to wonder.  Especially since pretty much every major new technology has brought with it unintended consequences that its inventors never imagined would exist.  Few, for example, would have predicted the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine.  It took time to realize what that was.  It will take as long to resolve the consequences.

One of the major questions that hangs in the air when we speak of innovation follows from such consequences: who gets to decide which direction invention takes?  Who gets to decide which technologies get propagated throughout society?  It was the enormous social upheaval brought about by the industrial revolution that forced into being the modern concept of democracy as a way for those who are affected to press back against those who determine what gets invented.  The owners of machines have bridled against the restraint ever since.  The power struggle between capitalism and democracy ebbs back and forward as the owner-disruptors and the consumer-workers balance their competing interests.

Right now the disruptors are winning.  They are imposing a new array of technologies that are upending the workplace and redefining work itself.  They are doing so unimpeded by social or political resistance.  They are exploiting our too ready acceptance of new technologies as being a social benefit.  They are living out the Schumpeterian vision of “creative destruction”.  We are unsure of what they are creating, but what they are destroying is much more immediately known.

Why should we put up with this?  Surely the illusion of a technological nirvana is too easily refuted given our knowledge of the environmental impact it has?  What is our social and political recourse?   These are our lives being changed.  We have a right to determine how those lives are organized.  Don’t we?

Later in his essay Smith recounts how Wernher von Braun, the renowned rocket scientist, responded to a question put to him while he was before a Congressional committee.  Braun was explaining the allure of the unknown and its impact on “scientific progress”.  He said:

“People are just curious … What follows in the wake of their discoveries is something for the next generation to worry about”

Really?  Have we not learned to be a bit more circumspect than that?

And, if democracy is our foil against unmitigated power held by the owners of the machines, how do we adjust it to hold fast in an age of constant technological turmoil and disruption?  Especially if their technology gives them insight into what, how, or when we think.

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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