Technology helps to drive social and technical change, and like most change there are winners and losers in a reshaping of the social landscape. It’s hard to blame the technology though – it’s simply a tool put to use by people. But technology often gets a bad rap, for reasons that are mostly social in nature.
Take for example some of the recent articles appearing in the press reflecting anxiety about the replacement of jobs by technology. Some of this is being driven by the disruptive effects of innovations such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb which are disaggregating supply chains in the taxi and accommodation sectors, threatening to eliminate service jobs in the process. It’s hard not to see how this can lead to anxiety and even fear about the impacts of technology on people’s personal lives.
The increasing power and prevalence of mobile technologies is one of the reasons for this extension of technology into previously untouched areas. For example, the US job site CareerCast recently published a report on the top 10 endangered jobs, and it includes occupations as diverse as farmers, news readers, lumberjacks (!) and tax collectors.
The destruction of some jobs by technological innovations isn’t new though. The rise of mechanisation during the industrial revolution resulted in a shift from largely agrarian economies to industrial ones. This has had significant impacts on employment, even though the 20th century. For example in 1900, 41% of Americans worked in agriculture, but the substitution of machinery for man power reduced that to 2% by the year 2000. This trend wasn’t confined to agriculture though, with innovation also significantly impacting on the number and type of jobs available in the manufacturing sector. Just ask workers in the automotive industry.
These industrial employment trends are relatively easy to spot. However, more recently the idea has been extended into sectors that have been unconcerned with the substitution of technology for labour. Take, for example, the thesis of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their excellent book, The Second Machine Age. In this text, Brynjolfsson and McAfee outline how rapid increases in the availability of cheap computing power combined with the digitisation of information are moving technology to a space where it can perform tasks that have traditionally been considered as being beyond the reach of computers, such as health care and professional services. They also suggest that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. Fertile grounds for concerns about the development and control of technological innovation.
These anxieties have led to the prospects of ‘new luddites’ appearing on the landscape (for a good discussion of the issue, see here). The idea of luddism has come to be associated with people who display an ignorant and naïve opposition to technology. However, the original luddites were concerned with the impact of technology of the fabric of society in the 1700s, and arguably these concerns are even more relevant in today’s environment of accelerating innovation and change.
The concerns about the march of technological innovation point to another issue; that is, whether technology defines society or society defines technology. This idea is captured in the concept of technological determinism, which suggests that the type of technology developed by society is the primary driver of how that society is organised. The idea was first proposed by Karl Marx, who observed that “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847). What sort of society are we likely to get when digital is the dominant form of technology?
The legitimacy – or strength – of technological determinism is hotly debated though, and there isn’t really a definitive position on the matter. But the idea highlights the important role that technology has in shaping society. And it also identifies one of the concerns feeding into anxiety about the impact of technological change; that people aren’t really in control of where technology is going.
Take the more recent example of Apple and its sequence of iPhones. This technology was developed by a relatively small team of people, yet its impact has been to redefine social practices and relationships across much of the world. The conduct of social relationships through these mobile devices has changed everything from who constitutes a friend, to how we find a partner in life. The pervasiveness of the technology is reflected in some studies that indicate that the average smart phone users unlock their phones, on average, over 100 times a day. For those of us the existed before the rise of this technology, that’s a significant change in behaviour!
The idea that a small group of people can develop and control such important technologies is an equally fearful prospect for many people. However, we’ve been living with this situation for centuries. In the case of electric power systems, a relatively small group of people plan, develop and control this critical infrastructure. This is partly because the cost, complexity and essentiality of the system would make it hard to run any other way. While innovation in renewable and storage technologies is starting to change this, we have happily supported an elite technocracy in its control of the system as it has yielded significant benefits to the individual and society over time.
A concern arising from this is that technology may eventually exceed human’s capacity to control it. Certainly the trends identified by Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest it is a possibility, and the potential for intelligent machines that start to design and build themselves is a popular basis for many a Hollywood movie. However, technology is not autonomous – at least not yet. It doesn’t define and develop itself and it remains in control of people; technology is defined by people, not by technology.
Returning to the example of smartphones, the original iteration of the technology was relatively simple in its application – at least compared to today’s version. Since that original innovation, people have found a multitude of applications for these high powered, handheld computers, ranging from ordering a pizza, to building personal relationships to monitoring arrhythmic heartbeats. All of these applications have been developed by people, in order to meet a need. Collectively they have created an impressive ‘piece’ of technology but in the end people remain in control. This idea is often lost in the hypnotic impact of each new iteration of the technology, but it remains the case.
This fact is also often lost on the entrepreneur. Much of the wailing about the impact of regulations on innovations such as Uber and Lyft derives from a belief in the logical progression of technological evolution. These entrepreneurs would prefer it if prior social structures as represented by regulations – which at least partially contribute to defining technology, including which technologies are acceptable – simply stepped aside while their (commercial) innovations were allowed unfettered access to markets. However, these regulatory structures have been developed over time to reflect public concerns and standards. They are both useful and important, although they can become ossified and inflexible over time.
As an example of this, imagine if we didn’t have these socially negotiated, centralised regulations. Would we have a world filled with nuclear power, genetic engineering and a range of now forgotten innovations that seemed like a good idea at the time? That’s not an argument for keeping regulation stagnant, but an observation that regulations are to important and useful to be subject to commercially motivated, short term change.
However, regulations are negotiated and negotiable and this is what seems to be forgotten by many in the entrepreneurial community. Technology often helps regulations and other social structures evolve; and conversely technologies often need to be shaped to existing social structures if they are to be successful in the marketplace. Henry Henry Chesbrough’s identified this in his book, Open Innovation. In there, he highlights the need for a useful business model for making use of technology. He also highlights the relatively narrow window that most innovations have to take advantage of their new ideas, and before anyone else does. In these circumstances, working to understand social barriers to adoption (including unsympathetic regulations) is a critical part of the innovation process.
So, technological innovation is inextricably tied to society, and the success of one leads to the success of the other. In most cases, the development of powerful technological innovations is undertaken by a relatively small group of people and the success of their innovations can lend significant power to those people. But in all cases, the users determine the success of the technology. This includes how the technology is used in practice, but also the standards, norms and (yes, Uber et al) regulations that define what is and what is not acceptable in society.
So while those people whose livelihood is threatened by technological innovation have a right to be worried about what the future holds images of a dystopian future where technology rules people are some way off. Instead, we all participate in the development of technologies through our behaviour and use of those technologies. This is an important idea for both the developers and users of technological innovations should keep in mind when thinking about how technology drives the future.