As a former engineering student, patent examiner and science editor, I encountered many technologies. I always considered science and technology as undoubtedly good things. I read books and wrote articles that talk about how science and technologies thoroughly transformed human life. I tried my best to persuade people to accept new technologies such as GMO and nuclear technology. I couldn’t understand why so many people opposed GMO food even though it provided us with abundant healthy and cheap nutrition. I believed technology was the primary drive of the development of society, economics, politics, and even humanity. The reason for me to hold this view might be rooted in the Marxism education I received when I was a kid. In other words, I was a technological optimist and technological determinist. Until recently, I discovered interesting opinions other than mine. This paper is my reflection on the readings so far. First, I discuss the disadvantage of determinism. Then, I use a taxi example to demonstrate why policymakers tend to be technologically deterministic. After that, I show a physicist’s view that sociology is so complex that it can’t be determined by only one factor. Then I discuss the politics in technology and predict that technologies will continue to promote economic growth but at a slower pace.
The Pitfall of Determinism
When summing up past experience and preparing for the future, people tend to turn to simple answers. Determinism is one of the simplest. As Daniel Chandler mentioned in his Technological or Media Determinism, determinism is common in sociology. There are, for example, biology determinism, language determinism, and technological determinism. Just like in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is just a simple number: 42. But simple answer means ignorance to the complexity of the whole socio-technical system. So, “it is wise to beware of generalizing too widely,” as Chandler put it. However, it is easy to fall into the pitfall of determinism, especially technological determinism, since we are in an era with so many new technologies that we take for granted.
For many people, technology is a sacred word, the main impetus for the improvement of society and economics. From scissor to the steam engine, from the railroad to aircraft, from telephone to the internet… People never get tired singing the praises to these wonderful inventions that are considered as the crown jewel of human cognition and the main drive of human history.
There are numerous instances in both academic and popular literature, partly because of their potential to create great stories. For example, in the BBC documentary The Incredible Human Journey, Alice Robert, a Professor at the University of Birmingham told us a fascinating story about sewing needle. She considered it as the most important invention that enabled human to conquer the Siberia. Another example is How We Got to Now, a book that is written by popular science writer Steven Johnson, who selected six technologies including air conditioning, glass, and artificial light, which he assumed to have “shaped” modern world.
Many so-called futurists even make vivid prophecies about the future, in which technologies not only transform our life but also change life itself. For example, Google’s Ray Kurzweil predicts that in thirty years, nano-scale robots will run in our brains, so that we can upload and download thoughts, knowledge, information, and skills, totally changing our way of communication. Not to mention the science fiction writers who put technologies to the center of their works. A recent demonstration is the Arrival, a movie adapted from Ted Chiang’s book Story of Your Life, which shows how alien language changes human cognition about time. As language is considered as a technology as well, a tool that differentiates us from other animals, language determinism is also a variant of technological determinism. This point of view is held by many people, including Mark Changizi in his book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
Why Policymakers turn to technological determinism?
Technology is also seen as a panacea that can solve all the problems we are facing. Even if technologies go wrong, people would come up with other or new technologies to solve the problems. In particular, policymakers tend to do that because this approach does not need to change any institutional factors and social relations, which not only are difficult to realize but also might risk the social structures that empower the policymakers with the power to make policies in the first place. Here is an example. Several years ago, hailing a taxi in Beijing was extremely difficult, despite the fact that many taxis were driving on the road without passengers. Many taxi drivers just refused to stop when they saw someone waving hands at the roadsides, causing a lot of complaints. In 2011, Xiaosong Li, the spokesman of The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport told a local newspaper called The Beijing News that they would establish a telephone calling system to assign the nearest taxis to the calling-in customers in the next year. They pinned their hope on this technology to solve the problem. However, as a Beijing resident, I never felt things were getting better with the advent of the calling system. In rush hours, many taxi drivers would stay away from the central areas in order to avoid being assigned customers. But suddenly, in recent years, sharing platforms like Uber and Didi Chuxing solve the problem once for all. Technically, their technologies are nothing radically different from the official calling system. They invented none of the underlying technologies such as the Internet and mobile payment. The key, I think, is not in how innovative their technologies are, but in how much they have changed social relations. Uber transformed the labor relations between taxi drivers and passengers. A normal car owner such as a programmer working in an IT company could easily become a taxi driver when he was on his way home. More profoundly, it transforms the resource allocation of the society.
Many people may think this is the end of the story. But it isn’t. As car-hailing apps continue to transform people’s trip mode, it is harder and harder for traditional taxi drivers to do their business, because the demand for taxi plummets due to the extremely big gap in the quality of service between Uber drivers and taxi drivers. Taxi drivers’ income decreased a lot because of their poor efficiency and terrible vehicle conditions. Taxi drivers went on strike in Shenzhen, Xi’an, Nanning, Chongqing, and other cities in China and they appealed the government to regulate or even ban the car-hailing apps. In late 2016, despite the fact that car-hailing apps solved the difficult-to-hail-a-taxi problem, The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport issued a new regulation, which imposes restrictions on the qualifications of Uber drivers. For example, only people with the registered permanent residence in Beijing who own cars with a relatively high wheel base are permitted to drive Uber cars in Beijing. Eligible drivers are in minority. So there are much fewer Uber cars in Beijing now and Uber drivers earn much less than before. Consequently, the problem of the difficult-to-hail-a-taxi almost comes back in 2017.
Why couldn’t the policymakers like The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport come up with good ideas like Uber and why are they against Uber even though it helps them solve the problem? I think one of the reasons is that changing social relations is a dangerous game that could undermine the policymakers’ status. It is evident in the new regulations for car-hailing apps in late 2016. I talked to one taxi driver, who supported the new regulations. He told me that their labor union lobbied among policymakers against Uber and Didi Chuxing. He even played a broadcast program to me, in which, in a tearful voice, members of the labor union discussed how to show government their “selfless contribution to Beijing in the past decades”. So, I think the new regulations to some degree reflect the power of the labor union in front of the policymakers.
This example demonstrates why policymakers would rather turn to technologies instead of social relations to solve problems, even if sometimes the latter is the right thing to do. Maybe it is one root for the technological determinism in policymakers.
Determinism is Oversimplified
Any variant of determinism is oversimplified. Because social phenomena are happening in complex socio-technical systems, where innumerable factors are interacting with one another. I’d like to show you a physicist’s opinion about sociology. Below is a figure from the book Our Mathematical Universe written by Max Tegmark, an MIT cosmologist. It depicts some derivative relationships between theories. As you can see, theories that describe chemistry can be seen to be derived from physics theories. And then, more complex theories are born, such as evolution, computer science, and psychology. The ultimate one is sociology.
What Professor Tegmark is talking about is that the lower the theory locates, the harder it is to be described by simple mathematics, and the less possible its inner relations are linear. In other words, sociology is nearly impossible to be linear and sociological problems are impossible to be determined by only one factor such as technology. Any attempt to use mere technology to explain or solve sociological problems is absolutely oversimplified.
The Politics of Science and Technology
In the policymakers’ assumptions that I mentioned above, there is another mistake. When they consider technology as a resolution to social problems without changing social relations, they’d better think again. Actually, to many people’s surprise, including me, politics is an inherent property of technology. “Technology is politically significant in its own right,” as Langdon Winner said in his Do artifacts have politics.
Winner briefly clarified his definitions for politics and technology—the “arrangements of power and authority in human associations” and “the activities that take place within these arrangements” for politics and “all of modern practical artifice” for technology. As Winner discussed in his article, there are different positions in the spectrum regarding how much politics in technologies. No matter how different their opinions are, they all agree that politics do exist in technology. Consciously or unconsciously, designers put political factors in their works, which not only reflect but also strengthen designer’s political tendencies. For example, Meitu, a Chinese beauty app that would whiten the skin, enlarge the eyes, shrink the cheeks, and stretch the legs certainly represents its developers’ view of feminine beauty in a male-dominated society, which is extremely gender-stereotypical. The app, in turn, strengthens the developers’ aesthetic tendency in both male and female users’ minds, thereby reinforces the power structure between genders. For example, it is more and more likely that a woman would send her selfies that are rendered with Meitu instead of the original ones to a potential date in order to impress him because she thinks she is less beautiful than the rendered selfies.
Technologies also have the power to change social relations. For example, household appliances such as microwaves, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers increase women’s efficiency at housework, giving them much more time to do other things. Birth control technologies liberate women from having children year after year. Thus, more and more women are entering the labor market in the 20th and 21st century. These technologies really change gender relations.
But people don’t agree on whether certain kind of social relations is required in order to achieve certain kind of technologies. Does steam-mill give us a society with industrial capitalist or the reverse? I don’t think there will be a yes-or-no answer because it will be oversimplified, just as the determinisms I discussed before. But I do agree that some social structures and social events can serve at least as catalysts for some technologies. For example, nuclear technologies, computers (semiconductors), the Internet, space exploration, and some other technologies are rooted in big military related projects that largely depend on the state force. Warfare and intense diplomatic relations facilitated those projects. On the other hand, some management methods are particularly suitable for some technologies. For example, Jon Gertner said in his book The Idea Factory that the reason for the Bell Labs to be so innovative is that it had established a special management system in which engineers, scientists, and technicians from different disciplines could easily talk to one another and share ideas. This management style fits telecommunication technologies so well that Bell Labs created thousands of revolutionary inventions. However, sufficient condition doesn’t mean necessary condition. The fact that some social relations do catalyst some certain technologies doesn’t give us the conclusion that only this social relation could bring us this technology. Maybe nuclear technologies would come to us anyway without the Manhattan project, only at a much slower pace. We never know for sure and it’s impossible to do a control test as in natural science.
Similarly, I found Lewis Mumford’s political dichotomy of technology hard to verify. Mumford thought there were two kinds of technologies, authoritarian and democratic. Nuclear power is authoritarian while solar power is democratic. I don’t see concrete proofs for his viewpoint. In my opinion, most technologies belong to neither of the two poles but rest on a spectrum in between. Even if the nuclear power that is considered by Denis Hayes as the most authoritarian technology possesses democratic factors. For example, in a society where most people lack education and the Internet due to very limited access to electricity, a nuclear power plant can not only provide people with electricity but also more opportunities to acquire education and information through the Internet, which is absolutely democratic.
Will Technology produce future economic growth?
Will technology continue to produce economic growth in the future? The answer to this question differs significantly between technological optimists like Andrew McAfee and technological pessimists such as Robert Gordon. My opinions are as follows.
Technology can produce future economic growth globally but at a much slower speed. As Gordon mentioned in his The Rise and Fall of American Growth, most advances after 1970 are in the field of entertainment, communication, and information technology, which are very relevant to Moore’s Law. But Moore’s Law is slowing down in recent years because we are approaching the physical limit of transistors. Actually, traditional 2D transistor already hit the wall several years ago until Intel invented the 3D transistor, which successfully shrank to 14nm. However, it is more and more difficult to achieve ever smaller size. Intel admitted in 2016 that they are obviously slowing down in the R&D of new transistors. However, the benefit of earlier nanoscale transistors has not yet been completely released to the consumer market. So I think economics will continue to growth at least due to information technology. But new paradigms such as quantum computing are still in their infancy, applications still a long way to go. Therefore, economics will not grow rapidly, until a new paradigm of computing is firmly established. However, the 20th century’s most important technologies are the fruits of military-related projects. In a relatively peaceful period of time, maybe in the 21st century, it will take much longer to find more general purpose technologies.
I also think technology will continue to increase inequality. Gordon in his book showed his observation about the increasing inequality since the 1970s in the USA. I think things will not be better off in the future. Just as Yuval Harari, the author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind said in a lecture last year, many emerging technologies such as longevity technology, artificial intelligence, and military technology have the power to enlarge the gap not only between rich people and poor people but also between rich countries and poor countries. For example, recent research shows that the blood of young mice has the potential to rejuvenate older mice. If the discovery is productized for human in the future, the price will be so expensive that only extremely rich people could afford it, expanding the inequality in expected life span.
However, technology is just one among many factors that influence the growth of economics. Other factors include policies, resource endowment, international trade, social structures, and so on. Sometimes, some unpredictable incidents could affect economic growth as well, like the butterfly effect. In addition, GDP is not a perfect index to measure economic growth and living standard, as both McAfee and Gordon mentioned in their books, despite their divergence. Maybe we need a more complex, multifactor model to describe the growth of society.
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