The Pill versus the Bomb: What Digital Technologists Need to Know About Power

People who work in digital technologies don’t tend to talk a lot about power, except perhaps in relation to our ever-depleting smartphones.

But if your goal in deploying modern technologies is even partly to make the world a better place, rather than solely increase the size of your Exit, sooner or later you’ll need to think seriously about power.

What is power?

Power is the capacity that some people have to influence the behaviour of other people. A respected teacher has power over their pupils. A feared warlord has power over his cronies.

The ownership and use of power ultimately decides whether you live a good life, or a miserable one. Power deployed before you were born determined whether you went to a good school, a bad school, or to no school at all.

The question of who is more or less powerful is of immense importance to the wellbeing of everyone. Generally we want people who are pleasant, fair, peaceful and well informed to have more power, and we want people who are unpleasant, biased, violent and stupid to have less. Look at any place in which true hardship is felt and you won’t have to look hard to find powerful people with very serious character flaws.

So if you have aspirations to make the world a better place, either as your main focus or as a lower priority interest, you need to think about power and how you’re going to influence it.

What does power have to do with technology?

Traditionally we think of power as being obtained through struggles: battles for promotion, advancement or conquest. Whether whispering poison about a rival into the ear of the CEO or leading a party of mongol warriors into western Asia the central metaphor of power is the battle for supremacy.

But power does not flow about or change hands exclusively through conflicts (although this is often the case). It also comes about when people invent or acquire certain kinds of tools. A police officer may have power to direct a crowd because the law gives it to her, but in the reality of a busy street she will have more power over the people around her if she has a loudhailer.

We are all familiar with certain kinds of technology that are synonymous with power. Guns are the most famous example — whenever you watch a movie in which someone holding a gun forces a victim to hand over money you are witnessing one of the most stark ways in which a piece of technology magnifies the power that one person has over another.

But what does this all have to do with digital technologies? Well, I want to argue that those people who hope to make the world better by reducing the power held by odious individuals need to understand that there are two very different ways in which technologies give power to some people and take it away from others. These are best seen through a brief look at two technologies so powerful that they are known by entirely generic nouns -The Bomb and The Pill.

The Power of the Bomb

A nuclear bomb is the quintessence of a tool designed to give one group power over another. If your side has got a nuclear weapon, and the other side doesn’t, it seems reasonable to suggest that you can demand pretty much anything you want and expect to get it.

But in practice the two great adversaries of the middle 20th century, the USA and the USSR were unable to exert much power over each other through their holding of nuclear weapons for the simple reason that the other side held them too. As soon as the technology was widely distributed, the power it gave its inventors ebbed away.

There are many technologies that gave their owners major power until those technologies became more widely distributed. Guns and artillery during the age of colonial expansion (until the locals got them), Boulton and Watt’s superior steam engines (until their patents expired), and putting the engine behind the driver in Formula 1 cars (until everyone did it). I call these kinds of innovations temporarily power shifting technologies.

The Power of the Pill

The oral contraceptive pill doesn’t, at first glance, appear to have the same visceral connection to power as a bomb or an engine. And yet as a technology that shifts power around it is perhaps unmatched.

This is because the Pill allowed women from the late 1960s onwards to control their own fertility, which allowed them to postpone marriage, postpone the birth of their first child, and turn these advantages into more education and greater involvement in the employment markets. Put together this gave women with access to the pill relatively greater power than they had before, both through greater earnings and through greater ability to choose how to live their own lives.

But what is most interesting to me about the nature of this technological power shift is that it did not dissipate as the technology became ubiquitous. Women making use of the Pill became relatively more powerful than they were previously. But once the pill was universally available they did not lose relative power again. This is because you can’t use a huge number of oral contraceptives as weapons to force women back to their previous social and economic positions — they just don’t work like that. Like a diode, the power of the Pill only flows one way.

It isn’t hard to find other technologies that have this same property. One much cited favourite is the washing machine. Although figures are hard to come by before the late 20th century historical accounts show household laundry taking up to a day and half a week: an exhausting, painful process as well as a time consuming one. Now women spend 1.9 hours a week on laundry on average, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. Again, the wide distribution of washing machines could not be used to reverse the gains made by women.

I call these kinds of technologies permanently power shifting.

Temporary versus permanent power shifting technologies in the digital realm

I believe that people seeking to make the world a better place with digital technologies should ask themselves whether they want to pursue power shifts that are more like the Bomb, or more like the Pill.

Digital electioneering tools, such as fundraising apps and targeted political advertising are temporary power shifting technologies. For the last few election cycles the Democratic party in the US have definitely had the best tech, the best people and consequently the best ability to obtain and deploy the power that comes from these new tools. In this way they’re analogous to the military position that America was in 1948: they control the supreme weapon, nobody else has anything like it. But as the USA discovered in 1949 (when the Soviets detonated their first nuclear bomb) if there is nothing innately power shifting about your new technology, then eventually your opponents will saddle up, and the power relationship will return to roughly where it was before you started.

But just as physical technologies can shift power in both temporary and permanent ways, so too can these shifts happen online. TripAdvisor has transferred power from people running hotels to people shopping for them, and its wide distribution does not return power to the hands of the hoteliers. And whilst mass media organisations are still very powerful, their relative power has been permanently reduced by social media. It is possible to be ignored by the entire mass media of a country but still have significant power over an audience via Twitter, YouTube and so on.

Power shifts never leave everyone happy, and few people are less happy these days than privacy campaigners. The fact that everyone carries sensor laden mobile phones makes national security agencies more powerful than they were before. Even where privacy protecting technologies exist, they cannot be said to be equal and opposite in effect to the ubiquitous computing we now live amongst. Mobile computing is a permanently power shifting technology that permanently empowers the security services.

Why care about this?

When brave and ambitious people set out to make the world a better place their instincts will normally be to identify the bad guys and fight them. And the technological weapons with which people choose to fight them will tend to be more like The Bomb than The Pill.

I want to encourage more change makers to think about projects that change the world in the way that the Pill did. Not by attacking foes head on with pikes and bayonets, but by digging up the whole battlefield and slanting it one way. If anyone reading thinks that the project they’re working on is like the Pill, then please get in touch.

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