June 06, 2017

Technology, Progress, And Irresponsible Stupidity

The world does not move in straight lines. We expect things to go one way, but they unexpectedly go another.

In 2000, when the Prius was introduced, most commentators saw a big future for hybrid vehicles.

In 2009, a study by JPMorgan confidently asserted "20% of all vehicles sold in U.S. to be hybrids by 2020."

In 2010, Consumer Reports said "39 percent are considering buying a hybrid or plug-in for their next car."

And yet, as of April 2016, hybrid cars represented less than 2% of car sales in the US. Their share of market has dropped by 50% since 2013. A car dealer I know told me "we can't give 'em away."

If you think the reason for this is the popularity of electric vehicles, think again. Electric vehicles represent less than 1% of car sales in the US.

In the early 1990's the Soviet Union collapsed. We thought "liberal democracy" had become triumphant and would be the model for world governance. Today "liberal democracy" is facing challenges we never imagined.

The point is this. We rarely know what we think we know.

Technologically we are very quickly entering terra incognita. The technological breakthroughs of the past two decades have been pretty mind-blowing. But the upcoming era of artificial intelligence and machine learning will make them seem timid.

Technology is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It all depends on how we use it. Nuclear energy was an amazing technological achievement, but nuclear weapons are nothing but a danger. As Stephen Fry brilliantly points out in this piece, Gutenberg's printing press - a technological marvel of its day -  could produce Macbeth. But it could also produce Mein Kampf.

So far, our ability to manage advertising and marketing technology has not been encouraging. I'm referring, of course, to ad tech and tracking. While technology makes the tracking of individuals possible, the absence of reasonable managing principles for this technology has created nightmares for consumers over their security and privacy.

I recently took part in a debate about this issue. My partner and I were opposed to the use of tracking-based ad tech.

One of the positions our opponents in the debate took was that if we opposed ad tech we were standing in the way of progress. This was a clever but profoundly misguided argument.

Technology is not synonymous with progress. Our ability to manage technology wisely determines if technology is progress or not. Even a cursory knowledge of history teaches that we are at least as capable of turning technology to the bad as to the good.

The idea that all types of technology constitute "progress" is dangerously shallow. The idea that opposing malevolent uses of technology impedes "progress" is irresponsibly stupid.

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