Is the path of technological evolution inevitable?

I read an article this week which essentially said the current ‘is it good/is it bad’ debate amongst politicians on the future of the sharing/on-demand economy is as futile as 19th century politicians holding a yes-no vote on industrialisation. They were making the point that the sharing economy cat is already out of the bag and the debate should be focused on how to shape it to bring the most benefit to society, not whether we should somehow try and stop it.

This goes right to the heart of whether technological developments are inevitable. Many commentators, myself included, believe that certain things are going to happen – kids will use more social media, more and more devices will be connected to the internet, ecommerce penetration will grow substantially from where we are today etc. etc. Many others are uncomfortable with this view, believing that we have invented technology and should be able to control it.

I’m currently reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants which sets out a framework for thinking about this question.

The TLDR is that the broad direction of technological development is pre-ordained, but we have control over the precise nature of how it unfolds.

He makes a helpful analogy with our lives as humans. When each of us is born we are given certain constraints within which we have no choice but to operate. Our genes determine that we have to eat, drink and sleep, have a strong predilection to reproduce, and will have a fairly predictable lifespan. After that the context in which we grow up has a great influence – whether we are we born in an age of physcial or mental labour has a massive impact on our lives, as does the extent of parental pressure to work hard, or follow a particular path, or the strength of the economy and range of employment options when we enter the workforce. Finally the decisions we make also play a big part. Some individuals find the energy to dig deep and overcome genetic limitations, others don’t. Some individuals go with the flow of society, whilst others rebel.

These decisions that we make are doubtless very important. They determine who we are and how we are perceived, and they are what is remembered about us as individuals. But they can only go a small way to transcending our genetics and context. No matter how hard she worked no 5th century woman could fly to Australia. Equally it would be very hard for an aspiring 21st century politician to make a big impact without embracing television and the internet.

Similarly, the direction of technological evolution has three determinants:

  • Structural – there is an inevitable trajectory towards greater organisation of information – first the printing press, then the telephone, then television, then computers, then the internet, then social networks, and so it will continue. Once each of these was invented it was only a matter of time before the next one came along. At a more detailed level there are paths of development which have their own inexorable logic – e.g. two wheeled cart, to horse drawn cart, to motorised vehicle, to self-driving car.
  • Historical – the historical context influences the pace, direction and application of technological development. We wouldn’t have had jet aeroplanes or atomic bombs in the 1940s if it wasn’t for the Second World War.
  • Intentional – at any given moment the citizens of society focus the use of technology in one direction or another, determining for example, whether it is applied for good or evil or whether social justice and harmony is prioritised over wealth creation (the sharing economy debate).

If this framework is correct then as individuals and as policymakers we should accept that technology will continue to develop, that there will be good and bad in that, and that the best thing we can do is try to shape it and bend it to maximise the good and minimise the bad. On the positive side there is a great deal of good to be had, as seen by massive reductions in global poverty and child mortality in recent decades, but on the negative side that does mean the bad can’t be eliminated and whilst we can minimise unpleasant new developments like cyber bullying and even grooming, we can’t eliminate them.