Our Digital Future, part 2: Digital tech as a general purpose technology

The term ‘General Purpose Technology’ (or GPT for short) is used to describe a technology, or related set of technologies, that “affect an entire economy (usually at a national or global level)”, and have the potential to “drastically alter societies through their impact on pre-existing economic and social structures”.

Defining technologies as GPTs, and ascribing their impacts on human history is not an exact science — indeed it sometimes seems more an exercise in semantics than useful analysis, although it’s certainly a lot of fun arguing over which advances qualify and why — for this reason the Computer and the Internet are sometimes taken as two separate GPTs, and sometimes ICT or ‘Digital technology’ stands alone. What matters, though, is that thinking about things in this way provides a way of seeing the impact of digital technology in a better historical context.

There are four useful things to draw from this in my view:

  1. New GPTs have been emerging increasingly frequently since the industrial revolution, and digital technology, as it changes the way we mediate, process and communicate knowledge, is adding to this acceleration. This includes new processes and ways of organising that digital technology is enabling
  2. As important as it is, digital tech is not the only currently developing GPT — for instance bio-tech, nano-tech and artificial intelligence are likely to be extremely disruptive also. We need to be aware that digital tech is just one part of the story, and that we need to learn to live happily and confidently with change and the emergent implications of a multitude of technologies.
  3. Digital tech can be compared with other technologies that have changed how everything works, such as electrification, the automobile and mass-media. We can gain insights from looking at how these other GPTs changed society, how long it took, how painful it was, what the positive and negative implications were. This gains us some valuable perspective.
  4. Because the impacts of digital tech are so broad, we need to be wary of restricting it to simple categories or trying to simplify its influence. We should be thinking as holistically as we can about how digital technology affects this thing or that thing, this piece of legislation, and that traditional institution. There are a large number of secondary technologies, services and behaviours that digital technology has brought about and each of these has a disruptive impact also. (These are sometimes called ‘spillover effects’).

There are two further things I should note about this.

First of all there are important counter-arguments to the idea that GPTs are increasing in frequency, especially when compared with the early 20th century, and that digital tech is having the impact it tends to be given credit for. The most recently articulated argument of this kind is by the economist Robert Gordon in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, which was published in January this year. Gordon argues that unlike during most of the 20th century, we haven’t seen the impact of digital technology reflected in US growth and productivity figures. This is correct (and the issue of the “productivity paradox” is something we’ll come back to in future posts, I’m sure), however I think there are other factors at play. Firstly, only looking at productivity ignores other impacts the technology is having, especially human and relational ones. Secondly, I think digital tech very often has a deflationary impact on business, it redistributes value and effort in ways that don’t increase productivity overall (which again is something I’m sure we’ll return to). And thirdly, it took other technologies decades to realise their potential in the wider economy, and I think most firms are still quite a long way off restructuring themselves to fully take advantage of the capabilities offered by digital tech, even at the same time as people individually are becoming increasingly empowered by it.

The second thing I should mention is the converse of this “it’s actually slowing down” argument, namely the “change is accelerating to the point of technological singularity” argument. The concept of the ‘Singularity’, while it has taken many different forms over the last half century or so, essentially is the idea that technological change will accelerate to the point where it a) doesn’t need human intervention to keep accelerating, and b) produces a super-intelligence and/or series of disruptions that outstrip human ability to understand, assess or intervene in any meaningful way. I’m generally not a believer in these kinds of arguments, as I believe human progress is more contingent and less linear than they tend to acknowledge, and there is a strong smell of millennialism inherent in singulatarian thought. That’s not to say that I don’t think the effects of rapid technological change aren’t significant or even unprecedented in human history, just that I think it’s more likely that our civilisation will collapse as a result of inequality than due to the emergence of a super-intelligent AI.

I also think us humans should back ourselves to figure this all out. We’ve been pretty good at it in the past.

(Image from a 1956 advertisement for America’s Independent Electric Light And Power Companies)


Originally published at suspendedjudgement.net.