TCS Daily


Rules for Technophiles

By Kenneth Silber - June 12, 2003 12:00 AM

I spend a lot of time writing about science and technology, and my general thrust has been one of promoting and defending science and technology. By most standards, I am a technophile. Yet I find myself concerned by some of the commentary presented by my fellow technophiles in various forums. In particular, they (or we, because I don't think I'm immune to these tendencies) tend to take expansive views about technology's potential to transform humanity and the world, even when there is vast uncertainty about what that potential is.

My concerns crystallized after I read Arnold Kling's TCS article "Moore vs. Plato" , which argued that the march of technology is rapidly making the work of humanists (experts on literature, philosophy and so on) irrelevant and obsolete. I debated Kling in a few comments posted below his article, and the debate soon focused on questions about technology and the Vietnam War.

But my broader objections were to the triumphal and sweeping tenor of his article. In subsequent weeks, Kling has written several TCS pieces on current issues in health care and education - and I have been tempted to post comments asking why we should worry about such pedestrian issues, given that technology is about to transform humanity anyway. (I decided to avoid such petty sniping, of course.)

Speculating about the future of technology is part of any technophile commentator's job description. But when technophiles assert, confidently and without caveats, that vast change is in the offing, several dangers arise. One is that technophobes will get undeserved material for presenting alarmist views, as has been occurring in the debate over human genetic engineering. Another concern is that overselling the product will lead to disappointment when the promised results don't arise, fueling further public disenchantment with technology. In addition, techno-hype can simply be a distraction when dealing with serious issues involving technology.

In light of all this, I would like to suggest some guidelines that could be helpful to technophiles in thinking and arguing about technology. These are heuristics to be considered, not inflexible principles, and they are reminders to myself as well as to others:

Extrapolate cautiously. The Wright brothers' original airplane in 1903 flew at about 30 miles per hour. Just under 50 years later, two military aircraft flew at over 1,600 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of sound. In the mid-1970s, the supersonic Concorde began flying commercially, and military jets pushed over Mach 3. Now, nearly 100 years after the first Wright flights, the top military speeds are stable, and the Concorde is being mothballed. The gains seen in the first half or three-quarters of the first century of flight would have been a poor predictor of where aviation would be in 2003.

Remember failed predictions. Numerous technologies have failed to live up to early expectations or speculations. Nuclear fusion and artificial intelligence both fall into that category. Some hoped-for technologies, such as flying cars or underwater cities, have failed to materialize at all. Meanwhile, the important technologies that have emerged often have done so with little expectation. In the late 1960s, the original Star Trek presented Ricardo Montalban's villain Khan as a product of "selective breeding," rather than of the gene splicing that emerged as a real technique the following decade.

Think negatively sometimes. Economists are adept at considering costs and constraints. Physicists are good at it, too, being quick to notice, for example, when a proposed energy device violates the laws of thermodynamics. Speculations about future technologies become more credible when they take into account possible physical, economic, social or political hurdles to their actualization. Technologies also may carry crucial tradeoffs against other technologies or goals. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars and electric-battery cars are unlikely both to become major forms of transportation (even if either one ever does).

Consider low-tech options. Not everyone has the inclination or the means to be on the technological cutting edge. Being focused on technology, technophiles may overlook alternative methods that, for better or worse, might come into use. During the conflict in Somalia in the 1990s, U.S. intelligence efforts were frustrated by the enemy militias' use of low-powered radios (and lower-tech drums) invulnerable to satellite interception.

Visit Monument Valley. This scenic Arizona-Utah area of mesas and buttes is worth the trip. But it's also an interesting metaphor, as used by physicist James Trefil in his book Are We Unique?: A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind. Trefil argued that any future intelligent computers would likely be very different from humans; they might outthink us in some ways but fall short in others - much as Monument Valley's structures differ from each other, rather than being adequately ranked by height. The Monument Valley metaphor provides a valuable perspective on the possibility that genetic engineering or other techniques could create "posthumans." But it's also a helpful way of thinking about technology in general. Innovations do not necessarily outperform, in every way, everything that came before.

Beware the horseshoe. It is sometimes suggested that the political spectrum is like a horseshoe, in which the extremes are much closer to each other than they are to the center. A similar argument could be made about the spectrum of opinion regarding technology. Among both technophiles and technophobes, there are fervent believers in the proposition that technology is about to radically change the world and humanity. The disagreement is mainly about whether this is a good thing. If you are a technophile who shares certain key assumptions with technophobes, that doesn't necessarily mean you and they are wrong in those assumptions. But it's a possibility you might want to consider.
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