Sunday, June 26, 2005

Technology isn't Destiny

Steve Heims argues that the ethos of science rests on two pillars: that science is value neutral, and that the results of science are unequivocally good [1]. I would add a third: that progress is inexorable. While this belief system is no longer held unquestioningly in scientific circles, it’s still going strong in technology. It can lead industries to underestimate the power of their opponents; this has happened with genetically modified foods, and may happen again soon with Digital Rights Management Systems (DRM).

According to Heims, John von Neumann (a paragon of the rationalistic approach) viewed the march of technology as inevitable and beyond human control. He also believed that all technologies were ultimately constructive and beneficial. Taken together, these two beliefs imply that a technologist is not responsible for any negative outcomes: if there are any harms, they only apply in the short term; and even if there were long-term harms, they’re inevitable [2].

The development of nuclear weapons called this value system into question: it is hard to argue that the science of the Bomb was independent of the political process, since it was funded as part of a war effort. It's even harder to argue that the invention of the Bomb was an unalloyed good. These days the hottest issue are in biology. Stem cell research is the subject of great political controversy, as is human cloning in general; and the risks and benefits of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food supply have been hotly debated.

However, this belief system is still going strong in the IT business. Staking a claim to "Grove's Law" earlier this year, Intel’s outgoing CEO said: "Technology will always win. You can delay technology by legal interference, but technology will flow around legal barriers." [3]

Most technology visionaries still treat their dreams as being independent of politics, religion, and social debates in general. For example, most technologists resist the idea that their work should be the subject of regulation. It’s commonly argued that light regulation of emerging technology is the most appropriate course of action. This only follows if one accepts the premises that innovation is beneficial (the second pillar), and that regulation slows down innovation.

In reality, technology is not value neutral. One need only look at the United States’ R&D tax credit [4] to realize that society has chosen to fund specific kinds of innovation in specific industries: physical or biological science, engineering, or computer science. Most science is funded by government grants, and the size and focus of these awards are the results of social decision making, often with an eye to technological applications which reflect specific socio-political agendas. There are many reasons to subsidize R&D - creating of jobs, creating wealth, generating competition, creating national champions – all of which are to some degree at odds with each other.

Arguments in favor of the pillars often depend on discounting the importance of time. If a technology hasn’t yet triumphed, or its benefits are unclear, it’s argued that one simply hasn’t waited long enough. Proponents of technological determinism assume that the benefit exists, and it is only a matter of time before it shows itself: a Platonic ideal which is consonant with “math envy” which is at the root of many technologists’ world view [5]. This also accounts for the ultimately frustrating vagueness of technological prognostications: visionaries are happy to tell you when something will happen, but are careful never to guess about when.

Some may argue that science will inevitably progress, regardless of local political agendas: for example, if the US government won't fund stem cell research, then the State of California will. The discoveries will be made somewhere. However, these very decisions to fund or not are the result of lobbying and polls, and in their nature contingent. Little progress will occur in unfashionable areas, but this doesn’t help the skeptic’s argument: it’s impossible to prove a negative.

The fact is that political and social processes can speed up or slow down: bomb making was speeded up, and human cloning has been slowed down. History is path dependent, and these interventions affect the package of technologies which results. It is only if one believes that the outcomes of science and technology are inevitable, not only in their existence but also in their form, that timing becomes irrelevant.

Technology is a new addition to the social ecosystem, and it has intended as well as unintended consequences. The unintended consequences can be ignored if one believes in the Second Pillar: that the outcome of technical development is always beneficial. The realist, on the other hand, needs to plan for the unintended consequences, and society – your and I, in other words – needs to make a conscious collective decision on the risks vs. benefits of new technologies. Norbert Wiener had a fine sense of this imperative; here’s how Steve Heims describes Wiener’s world view [6]:

“Wiener is asking the user of powerful automated tools to reflect upon what his true objectives are -- to appreciate that multiple objectives usually conflict with each other and that to be able to articulate what one truly wishes implies a profound and sophisticated understanding of things and people, including oneself. This constitutes an important shift from the traditional view of technology: instead of think of a new technology merely as something that enables you to do such-and-such (the attitude of the "gadgeteer"), you come to realize that by making it part of your ecological system you grant it the power to alter your future, for better or worse. Just what part you wish it to play in your life and what relation to it you wish to have are the choices at issue.”
I believe that every technology is embedded in a value system, and that outcomes are neither pre-ordained nor unquestionably good. I would thus argue that technologists need to understand their social context if they are not to be surprised by cultural resistance.

One can see this playing out in DRM today. The companies providing the technology argue that they are not the ones limiting customer choice; they merely provide the tools which content companies can use to enforce their rights in whatever way they choose. This is the First Pillar in action: the technology itself is value neutral. The technologists focus, understandably, on the benefits of their technology, and don’t see (or admit) any downside to it; the Second Pillar. And third: since the technology has been developed, its deployment is inevitable. Alternatives such as levies are discounted as a blunt instrument, historically obsolete, or unfair [7].

Technology companies have a blind spot to alternative futures in which DRM does not inevitably triumph, and underestimate the power of social movements who don’t buy into the three pillars to block their chosen solution. The blank incomprehension among many in the biotech industry to the rejection of genetically modified food in the European Union is a precedent the ICT industry cannot ignore.

My general conclusion is that technology is not destiny. Technology is part of a complex social process, and the outcomes are uncertain. The best technical solution will not necessarily win in the market (cf. Betamax vs. VHS). Conversely, the optimal business result, let alone the optimal social result, is not necessarily built on the optimal technical solution. Put another way: The best technical architecture isn’t necessarily the best business architecture.


[1] Steve J Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, MIT Press, 1980, Ch. 1, Von Neumann, Only Human in Spite of Himself, p 360

[2] Heims, ibid, p 367

[3] Michael Kanellos, blogging the 18 May Intel 2005 shareholders meeting

[4] Resources on the R&D tax credit: assessment of impacts, news coverage of its extension in late 2004 , a summary of the technology industry position, a backgrounder on state and federal credits; a summary of who qualifies

[5] It’s often said that those in the social sciences, or even softer natural sciences, have “physics envy” (in biology, in economics). By “math envy” I mean that technologists would like to believe that their work is timeless and true; the social contexts within which they appear are contingent and ultimately irrelevant. I prefer to use this rather than “physics envy”, since it seems to me that even physicists are jealous of the eternal truths supposedly obtainable via mathematics.

[6] Heims, ibid, Ch. 13, Wiener, the Independent Intellectual, p 341

[7] The European ICT trade organization EICTA makes the argument for DRM and against copyright levies concisely here. For a more detailed argument, see this. Those in favor of levies include collecting societies (eg in the US, ASCAP and BMI) and the free culture movement.

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