Global social and financial challenges
Technology and Its Discontents
By Levent V. Orman, Professor of Management Information Systems at Johnson
Why do we believe what we do? How has technology in particular shaped both what we believe and how societies generate knowledge and belief? These are the kinds of questions that Levent V. Orman, Professor of Management Information Systems at Johnson, explored in his new book, Technology and Its Discontents: The Deadly Embrace of Technology and Society (Create Space Publishing, 2013).
Over the past three years, Orman found himself increasingly interested in the Internet’s social impact, and this led him to consider how earlier technologies had contributed to shaping society. At the heart of it all, Orman wanted to unravel the connection between the way we behave and the way technology developed over time. Noticing the need to explore these complex issues through lengthy, example-based coverage in a way that would not fit academic articles, he chose to compile his ideas in essays and additional chapters that became his book. By encouraging readers to gather a broader understanding of how technology developed and shaped society in the past, Orman hopes to advance a new standard for approaching contemporary social issues.
Here, reprinted with the author’s permission, are excerpts from Orman’s book.
Technology is different from science. Science aims to explain the world around us; technology aims to change it. As such, those who create technology do so explicitly to change the world, and they always face a design question as to what type of world is desired. Unfortunately, the long term impact of technologies is very poorly understood, and technology creators rarely consider them. Technology creators aim to solve immediate problems, using short-term cost-benefit analysis, and typically ignore the long-term consequences. The reasons for such short-sightedness are partly the difficulty of predicting long-term consequences, and partly the lack of incentives to consider them. Long-term consequences are difficult to predict because there are long chains of cause and effect, with multiple interacting factors at each step. There are no incentives to consider these long-term consequences because they are not clearly linked to the technologies, and even when they are, the creators get neither praise nor blame for them. Worse yet, because of the difficulty of prediction, and the lack of incentives, no learning takes place. Even after the consequences are realized, any learning and analysis is reactive to the past technologies, not proactive towards the forthcoming technologies. With little or no learning taking place, technologies continue to impact society and the environment in a completely unpredicted, unplanned, and uncontrolled fashion.
Consider the automobile technology. It was designed and promoted as the “clean” technology, to remedy the pollution caused by the earlier horse and buggy technology. The automobile certainly remedied the problem of filthy and smelly streets; but the pollution problems it created were completely unpredicted and unplanned. Similarly, the new clean technologies such as solar and wind power are designed to remedy the immediate environmental problems, but their long-term impact on the environment is not known or even seriously investigated.
As unplanned as it is, the social impact of technologies is often dramatic and critically important. Technology, more than anything else, determines the human condition. Humans have distinguished themselves from all other species in their keen ability to create complex tools, and use them to modify their environment. Moreover, the desire to take maximum advantage of a technology often requires a reorganization of the human society, which creates new opportunities and imperatives to create new technologies, leading to an unending cycle. As such, technology and organization are the two inseparable components of the same basic human endeavor. Tools are created to change the environment to fit the human needs; the society is reorganized to take maximum advantage of the new tools and the modified environment; the new organization creates new human needs and consequently a need for new tools to further modify the environment. Past experience suggests that this cycle is not likely to converge, because the new technologies and the new organizations are designed to solve short-term problems, and their long-term consequences are often maladaptive, feeding or even accelerating the cycle. In fact, the cycle has been accelerating throughout human history, with the faster development of new technologies, and faster (yet increasingly inadequate) pace of adaptation by human organizations and institutions to the faster technology development cycle.
Consider again the transportation technologies. They resulted in a mobile society where fewer and fewer people reside with their extended families, or live permanently in their place of birth. That led to an increasing demand for communication technologies to keep them connected. Mail, telegraph, telephone, and internet are all responses to that need created by a previous generation of technologies that made the society more mobile. Telephone or internet in a pre-industrial society would have been an enigma, satisfying no particular need, real or imagined. Similarly, smaller and eventually nuclear families with only two adults are also the result of an increasingly mobile society, where large extended families are a burden, restricting economic opportunities created by mobility. This trend is accelerating, with average household size in the US dipping below two adults for the first time, with a large number of adults living alone, and many with no children. Yet, humans did not evolve to live in such small families, but in larger groups of 15-30 like all other apes. Such social consequences of transportation technologies were not anticipated, let alone planned for, at the time of development and introduction of these technologies.
There is considerable evidence that technologies that created the modern lifestyles with fragmented identities also created various mental illnesses that involve fragmented identities. Industrial revolution led to a breakdown of communities formed around crafts and small scale agriculture that were based on extended family ties. The elimination of such permanent communities was necessary since the new large scale industrial operations required each individual to specialize, and also to move wherever they are needed. That led to an individualistic lifestyle with no permanent and stable anchors, where every individual was judged by its own performance rather than assuming a group identity and performing as a group. Every person now had to define himself, set his own life goals, choose his own community, and be responsible for his own happiness. That was revolutionary. And it led to some unexpected consequences. People suddenly started developing new types of mental illnesses in great numbers that involved fragmented personalities. Schizophrenia rates skyrocketed in England where the industrial revolution first emerged, so much so that it was called “The English Malady”. The new diseases spread to the rest of the world, along with the spread of new industrial technologies and the new lifestyles they brought about. In addition, a number of other psychological maladies such as “loneliness” and “depression” became major epidemics, although they used to be rare in earlier tribe, clan, or extended family based societies.
We are defined by the tools and technologies we use. They shape our identity. They feed and shelter us. But they also threaten our very existence. What separates us from all other animals is primarily the plethora of tools and technologies we created for our well-being and for our very survival. They are the source of our admirable success as a species; and they are the source of our most terrifying problems. Sometimes, they are the only solution to the very problems they created. That puts us in a race against ourselves, a race among technologies, a race between the good they do and the misery they cause, often the same technology doing both at different times and under different conditions. This has been the human condition from the beginning of our species, and it will likely be the human condition at the end.