A day after writing about technology, culture, and innovation, I’ve come across two related pieces.
At Walter Mead’s blog, the novel use of optics to create a cloaking effect provided a springboard into a brief discussion of technological innovation. Here’s the gist of it:
“Today, Big Science is moving ahead faster than ever, and the opportunities for creative tinkerers and home inventors are greater than ever. but the technology we’ve got today is more dynamic than what people had in the 19th and early 20th centuries. IT makes it possible to invent new services and not just new gadgets, though smarter gadgets are also part of the picture.
Unleashing the creativity of a new generation of inventors may be the single most important educational and policy task before us today.”
“Technology in today’s world has run way ahead of our ability to exploit its riches to enhance our daily lives. That’s OK, and there’s nothing wrong with more technological progress. But in the meantime, we need to think much harder about how we can cultivate and reward the kind of innovative engineering that can harness the vast potential of the tech riches around us to lift our society and ultimately the world to the next stage of human social development.”
Then in this weekend’s WSJ, Walter Isaacson has a feature essay titled, “Where Innovation Comes From.” The essay is in part a consideration of the life of Alan Turing and his approach to AI. Isaacson’s point, briefly stated, is that, in the future, innovation will not come from so-called intelligent machines. Rather, in Isaacson’s view, innovation will come from the coupling of human intelligence and machine intelligence, each of them possessed of unique powers. Here is a representative paragraph:
“Perhaps the latest round of reports about neural-network breakthroughs does in fact mean that, in 20 years, there will be machines that think like humans. But there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.”
I offer these two you for your consideration. As I read them, I thought again about what I had posted yesterday. Since the post was more or less stream of consciousness, thinking by writing as it were, I realized that an important qualification remained implicit. I am not qualified to speak about technological innovation from the perspective of the technologist or the entrepreneur. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak about technological innovation from any vantage point. Perhaps it is simply better to say that my interests in technological innovation are historical, sociological, and ethical.
For what it is worth, then, what I was after in my previous post was something like the cultural sources of technological innovation. Assuming that technological innovation does not unfold in a value-neutral vacuum, then what cultural forces shape technological innovation? Many, of course, but perhaps we might first say that while technological innovation is certainly driven by cultural forces, these cultural forces are not the only relevant factor. Those older philosophers of technology who focused on what we might, following Aristotle, call the formal and material causes of technological development were not altogether misguided. The material nature of technology imposes certain limits upon the shape of innovation. From this angle, perhaps it is the case that if innovation has stalled, as Peter Thiel among others worry, it is because all of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked.
When we consider the efficient and final causes of technological innovation, however, we enter the complex and messy realm human desires and cultural dynamics. It is in this realm that the meaning of technology and the direction of its unfolding is shaped. (As an aside, we might usefully frame the perennial debate between the technological determinists and the social constructivists as a failure to hold together and integrate Aristotle’s four causes into our understanding of technology.) It is this cultural matrix of technological innovation that most interests me, and it was at this murky target that my previous post was aimed.
Picking up on the parenthetical comment above, one other way of framing the problem of technological determinism is by understanding it as type of self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, perhaps it is better to put it this way: What we call technological determinism, the view that technology drives history, is not itself a necessary characteristic of technology. Rather, technological determinism is the product of cultural capitulation. It is a symptom of social fragmentation.
Allow me to borrow from what I’ve written in another context to expand on this point via a discussion of the work of Jacques Ellul.
Ellul defined technique (la technique) as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” This is an expansive definition that threatens, as Langdon Winner puts it, to make everything technology and technology everything. But Winner is willing to defend Ellul’s usage against its critics. In Winner’s view, Ellul’s expansive definition of technology rightly points to a “vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of modern culture.”
Although Winner acknowledges the weaknesses of Ellul’s sprawling work, he is, on the whole, sympathetic to Ellul’s critique of technological society. Ellul believed that technology was autonomous in the sense that it dictated its own rules and was resistant to critique. “Technique has become autonomous,” Ellul concluded, “it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and which has renounced all tradition.”
Additionally, Ellul claimed that technique “tolerates no judgment from without and accepts no limitation.” Moreover, “The power and autonomy of technique are so well secured that it, in its turn, has become the judge of what is moral, the creator of a new morality.” Ellul’s critics have noted that in statements such as these, he has effectively personified technology/technique. Winner thinks that this is exactly the case, but in his view this is not an unintended flaw in Ellul’s argument, it is his argument: “Technique is entirely anthropomorphic because human beings have become thoroughly technomorphic. Man has invested his life in a mass of methods, techniques, machines, rational-productive organizations, and networks. They are his vitality. He is theirs.”
And here is the relevant point for the purposes of this post: Elllul claims that he is not a technological determinist.
By this he means that technology did not always hold society hostage, and society’s relationship to technology did not have to play out the way that it did. He is merely diagnosing what is now the case. He points to ancient Greece and medieval Europe as two societies that kept technology in its place as it were, as means circumscribed and directed by independent ends. Now as he sees it, the situation is reversed. Technology dictates the ends for which it alone can be the means. Among the factors contributing to this new state of affairs, Ellul points to the rise of individualism in Western societies. The collapse of mediating institutions fractured society, leaving individuals exposed and isolated. Under these conditions, society was “perfectly malleable and remarkably flexible from both the intellectual and material points of view,” consequently “the technical phenomenon had its most favorable environment since the beginning of history.”
This last consideration is often forgotten by critics of Ellul’s work. In any case, it is in my view, a point that is tremendously relevant to our contemporary discussions of technological innovation. As I put it yesterday, our focus on technological innovation as the key to the future is a symptom of a society in thrall to technique. Our creative and imaginative powers are thus constrained and caught in a loop of diminishing returns.
I hasten to add that this is surely not the whole picture, but it is, I think, an important aspect of it.
One final point related to my comments about our Enlightenment heritage. It is part of that heritage that we transformed technology into an idol of the god we named Progress. It was a tangible manifestation of a concept we deified, took on faith, and in which we invested our hope. If there is a palpable anxiety and reactionary defensiveness in our discussions about the possible stalling of technological innovation, it is because, like the prophets of Baal, we grow ever more frantic and feverish as it becomes apparent that the god we worshipped was false and our hopes are crushed. And it is no small things to have your hopes crushed. But idols always break the hearts of their worshippers, as C.S. Lewis has put it.
Technology will not save us. Paradoxically, the sooner we realize that, the sooner we might actually begin to put it to good use.