Social and Historical Contexts of Technological Development

There is a very powerful cognitive bias called present bias, and also a related one called, “what you see is all there is” — the availability bias. Taken together, we tend to think that there is something special and important about our own moment in time. In the existential sense, these facts might be true. But as a result, we often lose sight of a larger perspective compared to when we can see the present in light of the history that has led to here.

In this sense, it is important to have a sense of the histories surrounding technologies. Rather than continuously thinking about the trajectory of how technologies develop (which is nonetheless important), it is just as important to think about the social, political and economic conditions that nudge and determine the direction of technological development. These things are most evident when thinking about military technology development, but they also apply broadly to other areas. These initial facts will apply to the development of genetic and medical technologies, and they will apply to say, digital surveillance and privacy technologies.

It is all too easy to get swept up into thinking just about the trajectory of the technological development. We always think that since technology will develop exponentially, there will be widespread transformative changes in society. To some extent, there has been, and there will be changes, but we often underestimate the time required for these transformative changes to percolate through society. If one just thinks about the earlier decades, one realises actually the extent to which things have not changed.

One of the most pertinent examples about how technology has (not) changed society is with gender. Despite the promises of appliances to help with chores, wives still undertake the burden of cleaning the home. If anything else, technology has served to strengthen the gender divide. Because one could follow the reasoning: technology makes housework easier, therefore, wives can continue to do it despite a hard day’s work. And this additional work — this “Second Shift” remains a feature of our society today. Technology might have helped with housework, but it still remains the province of the wife. So while things have changed, they also have not changed.

A second related example has to do with gender participation in technology. Programming skills are a clear example of a post-industrial job. We should see more women entering this field, but that has not happened. Nor is there any deficient cognitive quality in females. That such a strong divide has still remained speaks to the power of other social forces that people don’t like to talk about. And this is a shame. People might have thought that technological advances would create a more equal society. That has not happened. There isn’t just a gender divide; there is also a minority divide. The technological sector continues to perpetuate larger social divides that exist in society.

The era of the Internet made people think that the information technologies made the office redundant, and that people could log on from their home or cafe and contribute to the work in the company. That dream has not come true, as we realise that work is a very social and physical process, and that people like work and being with people. Technologies have not been able to overcome such strong basic impulses. Virtual Reality will pose a serious challenge to this — if people can just live out virtual existences like that poor Bruce Willis movie — “The Surrogate”, or the cyberpunk visions offered by Vernon Vinge or Neal Stephenson.

In our present age, we tend to think that every moment of technological development is always on the verge of something exponential. Actually, we can’t quite tell. I can imagine, and there were, people wondering about how fabulous their age was as the transatlantic telegraph cable was being laid. Or right before the World War I as people thought that economic integration was going to make war redundant. It seems hard to believe, but ever since the Industrial Revolution, every age has seemed to be the most exciting age of their own era. And in the next decade, they will pronounce the same thing of their age too.

For the most exciting technologies, there have been false promises before. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov, for one. With AlphaGo beating Lee Sedol that might seem another milestone, but it’s probably only one in a long series of milestones. I’m sure Watsons has its use but it will still need a long time before it becomes a wider part of society. And so was nuclear fusion, and superconductivity. And perhaps also, genetic engineering and therapies. I am hopeful that there will be many breakthroughs to come, and that many of these things will change human civilisation. We will have to talk about these developments as they come up and see how best to fulfil their promises.

As we bear witness to these developments, we should also realise how much has stayed the same in society. Family remains an important social institution. Material consumption and accumulation is still the major way that societies measure success. Environmental damage still continues. In all of these fields, technology is not the question, and neither can it be the solution. In many of these areas, it is still a contest of politics. And while technologies can shape the way politics is conducted (and it should be reflective about it), politics is still in the end, down to people talking to each other, deliberating, and thrashing things out, compromising on various things to get at the common project of living with each other without violence.