This article is an excerpt from a book in progress, titled The Silica Papers: Who Technology Is and What She Wants. Silica is the name I have given to the technosphere—the totality of human artifacts constructed over eons by human beings that allows us to survive and improve our lot. Except that things don’t necessarily get better in every way. To underscore how technology drives us as much as we drive it, I have personified Silica as sort of a demigod-in-waiting, a female force of nature I also call Stepmother Earth, who’s not quite sentient but quickly becoming so.
Her evolutionary imperatives have driven humanity to elaborate what—inspired by V.I. Vernadsky and Edouard LeRoy—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noösphere, or “thinking layer” of the Earth, atop the biosphere, exemplified by the Internet. The brief section below explores the universal reluctance of almost everyone concerned with inventing, deploying and studying technological innovations to seriously regard their potential downsides. But first:
“Looking far ahead, Vernadsky considered the emergence of the noosphere as a critical evolutionary step needed for preserving and reconstructing the biosphere in the interest of humanity as a single entity… We have already altered the biosphere to such an extent that the only rational way out is to understand as good as possible its intricate functions – and then to make sure that the future changes we inflict on the global environment will remain within tolerable limits. Obviously, the collective role of human consciousness will be essential if this unprecedented process of planetary management is to succeed.”
~ Vaclav Smil, (2002). The Earth’s Biosphere Evolution, Dynamics and Change. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Nobody denies that design flaws, shoddy materials, and construction glitches in a large system can have serious and costly consequences. But despite knowing that catastrophic failures like Chernobyl, Fukishima, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon are always a possibility, texts from the vast font of innovation literature hardly ever worry that technological innovation can lead to major problems. To give a less scary example, we the peeps are deluged, thanks to how email operates in a lawless virtual world, by unsolicited email messages, what we call spam. Estimating its volume is tricky, as it’s hard to know how many messages are blocked from getting through to email servers and how many recipients were involved, but it seems that unsolicited commercial messages constitute anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of global email traffic. Spam is incredibly annoying and costly for service providers to deal with, but on reflection seems almost inevitable given our quest for frictionless communication. But did any sober scholar of innovation or bright-eyed futurist warn us that we might get spammed? Hardly, so high were they on the idea of building a bounteous tomorrow to rescue us from a deficient today.
Search for “innovation” in the book section of Amazon.com, and you come up with about 201,000 publications overall, 25,600 of them (up from 12,000 five years back) in the Business and Money aisle, written by almost half as many authors (there were only 350 authors five years ago; clearly this is a growth industry). However, if you look for authors who worry about consequences of innovating, the picture is quite different. Search the entire Web for “bad effects of innovation” and Google yields but nine results. Make a less judgmental search for “unintended consequences of innovation” and Google disgorges 107,000 hits. Near the top of the list and widely cited is a 2009 study from the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Unintended and Undesirable Consequences of Innovation, the abstract of which begins (emphasis mine):
Although innovation is one of the most commonly mentioned concepts in social science unintended undesirable consequences of innovation are rarely studied. This study does a literature review of all articles in the EBSCO database, with innovation in the title and which study undesirable consequences. We found only 26 such articles; 1 per 1000, a proportion that has not changed since the 1960’s. An author survey on why there is still so little research on this issue was therefore also done and is presented. The survey ranks suggested hypotheses and finds that the most important limiting factors are pro-innovation bias among researchers and vested interests of funding agencies, which cause change agents and researchers to consider mainly an innovation’s intended desirable consequences.
Only one in a thousand authors. This is what sociologists in the field of Diffusion Theory call pro-innovation bias, coined in the mid 1970s by Everett M. Rogers, professor of communications at Stanford and a leader in the field. In his influential book, The Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed., Free Press, 1983), Rogers describes pro-innovation bias this way:
The implication in diffusion research that an innovation should be diffused and adopted by all members of a social system. That it should be diffused more rapidly, and that the innovation be neither reinvented or rejected. (p. 129)
In their 2004 paper Anticipatory Innovation published in the Journal of Future Studies, the Australian researchers Ramos and Hillis echo Rogers’ view:
The Diffusion of Innovations reflects a general focus on the development of short term instrumental capacity. The question for innovators seems to be “what can we do and how can we do it?” rather than “what effect will it have?”
What accounts for so much reluctance to look at the whole picture when history demonstrates that every new technology comes at a price, sometimes a steep one? What value comes from pretending that the downsides don’t exist?
All this denial is nothing new. Within a year after Wilhelm Roentgen announced his discovery of a new kind of radiation that could images the bones of living persons in 1896, others were constructing x-ray devices and using them to amuse crowds and to peddle quack cures with no concern as to how safe or effective they were. It took the deaths of several prominent radiologists in the early 1920s to spark concerns about clinical use of x-rays and radium. Soon medical societies issued radiation exposure standards that became progressively more stringent throughout the following decades. Quantitative scientific surveys of radiation exposure only began in the mid-1950s, prompted by concerns about atmospheric nuclear testing. One minor victory was the banning in 1957 of foot fluoroscopes that shoe stores had been subjecting customers to for over two decades. All along, practitioners knew that ionizing radiation could have worrisome ill effects, but it took half a century to effectively grapple with its dangers.
We always push on, consequences be damned. The same Capitalist dynamism that drives innovation harbors bugs that cause it to churn out inventions while ignoring, misrepresenting, and even suppressing concerns about possible negative outcomes, as described in Chapter 1, Vain Notion, and amplified in the following one, Riding the Innovation Wave.
We end by asking again if Silica should or would care if unwanted effects of innovation aren’t properly scrutinized. After all, over the long haul, innovations rebound to her benefit. Still, she might worry that the churn of inventions can prevent any given one from leveraging its full potential benefits. But that’s small change compared to technologists’ abysmal failures to foresee after- and side effects. For example, try to imagine the untold thousands of innovations that paved the way for today’s fossil fuel industry, its supply and distribution channels, and all the ways in which we have come to consume energy. It’s pretty clear that almost no one involved in those enterprises gave much critical forethought to how their innovations might affect the world beyond their customers and interests. Technological tunnel vision is typical of pragmatic and opportunistic capitalist behavior, but it imperils Silica. Rising sea levels, superstorms, water shortages, and killer heat waves require immense resources to remediate. Perfectly good infrastructure will be rendered unusable and have to be rebuilt at phenomenal expense. Waiting for repairs does nothing to advance Silica’s agenda. Lack of self-critical thinking within technology circles continues to set her back.
So, when the next big thing appears on your high-tech radar, ask a few whys and what ifs and demand answers, because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
© 2012-2017 Geoffrey Dutton. All rights reserved. This essay was first published on LinkDin.