Technology is both constructive and destructive

“If we examine technologies honestly, each one as its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions, for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm. The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well”

Kevin Kelly, wrote this in What Technology Wants, where he advances a great argument that, ultimately, resistance to a new technology is futile, in spite of concerns that the new tech is dangerous, or has too many possible consequences, still unknown, and should be legislated out of existence. He writes that prohibitions are in effect just postponements, because inevitably new technologies will be adopted, no matter which Shogun bans guns from his beautiful, elegant, and ritualistic samurai sword fights.

Good, interesting, thought-provoking stuff.

7 thoughts on “Technology is both constructive and destructive

  1. Is it really true that resistance to new technology is totally futile? The Romans invented the steam engine, but they never got a train. China had big ships year ahead of time, but they never conquered the new world. Nukes have been around for over 50 years, but they haven’t been used in warfare since World War II.

    Can you really consider technological advances without considering the surrounding society? Technologically inevitability may exist in our culture, but that is truly universal?

    Military technologies advance because there is no universal government. If a single government were to fully conquer the whole world, would such situation continue to exist? Competition between states has lead to greater innovation.

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  3. I think it is possible for ordinary, intelligent technology users to do things like find out how to keep their devices from ever sending (or including in photos, etc.) their GPS location coordinates. And I think a large number of sophisticated users will know how to complain to vendors, designers, architects, standards bodies, consumer watchdogs, and similar organization when the abuses from such surveillance technologies start doing more harm than good, even from a subjective viewpoint.

    However, I am not convinced that government surveillance efforts will always or even most of the time be detected or countered before they do real harm.

    We have to remember that our criminal justice system laws are as much a technology as the code in our cellphones, as Lawrence Lessig teaches, and that we can be harmed by both and therefore we should take the time to review both.

  4. I admit I haven’t read this book yet (meant to-sitting on my shelf-yes in physical form). But my instinct is that there is some truth to the inevitability argument but it is not as strong as suggested by Kelly. It seems to me there are often key decisions along the way that dramatically affect the rate and direction of technology development. Tim Berners-Lee choosing open standards for the web was probably one of the biggest moments in the information world’s recent history. I worry that the rise of corporate silos for subscription short messaging that seems to be happening now will dramatically dampen a lot of the openness of the web so far. Perhaps though this would just be classified by Kelly as postponement. I dunno. Maybe I should read the book.

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  6. Hey Caterina,

    This post is really thought provoking. Particularly now, as companies are becoming more capital efficient and profitable and at the same time the wealth gap continues to increase. There are times I wonder what end our ambitions will bring us to. Technological progress is inevitable though, so I suppose the best decision is to leverage it and to set a good example for others.

  7. In ‘The Great Transformation’, writing about how the total disruption of English society by industrialization was crucially drawn-out enabling society to undergo it without disintegration, Karl Polanyi argues the terms ‘ultimately futile’ and ‘just postponements’ are misnomers. Sometimes a 25- or 100-year postponement is exactly what society needs to save itself, to adjust healthily rather than fall ill.
    Reformers may act with the aim of altogether prevention, but the crucial aim they in fact serve is postponement.

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