Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Worst of All Worlds

The T-850 model from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The previous post discussed the relationship between technology and society, and concluded that it is much more analytically powerful to speak of the socio-technical as the matter from which our societies derive shape. Using this notion, we were able to show how the technical and the social are intertwined in ways that influence the evolution of either as time passes by. This is in contrast to the more usual narrative of some rustic social norms ending up corrupted by a technology that seems to come out from nowhere.

In this post, the focus will be on discussing the effect of the social on the evolution of the technical, and how more often than not, this effect leads to a sub-optimal realization of the technology in question. The reason why we are going to focus only on this aspect of the relationship is pretty simple: accounts that discuss the role of technology in transforming societies are much more common. For instance, any standard treatment of the rise of Protestantism today is very likely to refer to the contributions of the printing press leading up to said rise, even if in passing.

But you might ask, why is it that the relationship often times has a negative impact on technology? Will, because the outcome is one of two: either the technology is left to realize its full potential, in which case the effect would be neutral. Or, it is held back by the social, which obviously is a negative thing, at least from the standpoint of technology! Below are a few of the mechanisms through which the social can influence the evolution of the technical, with topical examples.

Path Dependency

The first example is the universal QWERTY keyboard layout - look at the first row of letters on your keyboard to understand what is being talked about. It is an artifact of times when typewriters were the state of the art technology. Back in the days, typing fast was a real problem. It meant that the internal mechanism powering the typewriter would jam regularly. The solution was a layout specifically designed to slow down your typing speed, by making your fingers travel more distance compared to a more time-efficient placement of letters. Since then, typewriters were superseded by electronic keyboards that don’t jam. Yet the layout persists, bogging down our productivity by who-knows-how-many-hours a year!

The basic idea here is very simple. Humans’ expectations of new technologies are shaped by their prior experience with older ones. Take for another example the lighting systems used today to light our built environments. After inventing the system, Edison went out of his way to make it mimic in every way possible the oil-based lighting system prevailing in the times. He made sure it would have low brightness, give a headache inducing yellow flare, and hang from the middle of the ceiling; features that still persist to our day, despite their “glaring” sub-optimality.

You can also expect something similar when fuel-cell powered cars start rolling-out into the market. In the best of all worlds, the driving interface would be reinvented from the scratch up - for instance the gas pedal will be necessary no more. But because this is not such a world, you can expect the realization of the full potential of hydrogen cars to be hampered by our - by then - rudimentary notions of how cars should be driven.

The Social Construction of "Things"

While so far it seems that humans negatively influence technologies by their sheer stupidity and lack of drive to forsake inferior conditions in favor of superior ones, there are ways in which they exert a much more sinister and deliberate influence. An example that delivers the message home clearly here is birth control technology. Most contraceptive methods today are used by women. Almost invariable they pose some degree of health risk to the user, by either messing up their hormonal cycles, or placing mechanical objects within their reproductive organs, which might dislocate and cause serious internal damage under certain conditions.

However, there has been some attempts to shift this burden to men, by developing male contraceptive pills, which were claimed to have minimal side effects if any at all. Unfortunately, all of these attempts were nipped in the bud, simply because of the way gender-roles influence our expectations in this regard – i.e. traditionally speaking, it is a woman's thing to prevent undesired conception by any of the means available, and not a man’s, no matter the cost!

Institutional Inertia

According to our technological forecasts, we are supposed to be living in the pinnacle of the biotechnology age at the moment. By now, cancer should have joined the long list of conquered diseases, at a fraction of the current cost. So what happened? Could it be that our predictions were unrealistic to start with? May be, but generally speaking, technological forecasts are fairly accurate – think Moore's “law”.

There is a pretty simple explanation here: legislation. Or to be more accurate the patent laws, which are geared towards fostering technological innovation in the ICT sector, but not biotechnology. This is because there are radical differences between the two, the most important of which is that the line separating science from technology in the latter is very thin and blurry for the current laws to be effective. What is happening in essence is that companies and universities alike are patenting basic science, and therefore preventing other companies from developing that basic knowledge into useful products. The idea here is that our institutions are too cumbersome and bureaucratic to keep up with the highly dynamic nature of science and technology.

So there you have it! If anyone is to claim victimhood in all of this, then it is poor technology! Now scroll back up to the terminator photo, and reconsider!


  1. You sound quite knowledgeable about STS. I'd like to invite you to join our linkedin group we look forward to your contributions.