Introducing a new technology is not a neutral act–it is profoundly revolutionary. If you present a technology to the world you are effectively legislating a change in the way we all live.
Although this is quite obvious if you think about it, what continues to astonish me is that we don’t think about it. We seem to completely lack the ethical and social frameworks needed to address technology’s political power, despite abundant evidence of that power and its outcomes good and bad.
Canadians are taught the legend of the last spike–we’re told from an early age that it was the transcontinental railway that made our nation possible. For us, this is the canonical example of technology as legislation; it wasn’t enough to declare the Dominion over a geographical area, that area had to be occupied and there was only one way to do that: through technological fiat. Two other pivotal examples of technology’s political power can be seen in the use of fax machines to organize resistance during the Velvet Revolution, and the use of text-message chain letters to pressure Joseph Estrada to resign as president of the Philippines. More subtly, you could make a case for the Pill as having legislated a more balanced male/female work force within all the countries where it’s been implemented. It allows women to pursue long-term educational and career goals without fear of being sidelined by multiple pregnancies, without at the same time having to sacrifice their romantic lives to those goals. This is a huge change that as a society we’re only just starting to come to terms with.
Many people respond to this situation by proposing that some sort of legal–i.e. legislative–mechanism can or should be created to put the brakes on unbridled technological change. (Ban stem cell research, for instance.)
This is an amusing idea because it completely misses the point. Technology is already legislation; what’s more, it’s trans-national in scope, therefore can’t be controlled by any one legislative body. There’s no clearer example of this principle in action than today’s copyright wars. Technology has legislated away the current business model of the entertainment giants; they’re responding with a two-pronged attack. The first side of this is an attempt to legislate the technological genie back into the bottle (the RIAA, for example); the other side is an attempt to create technologies that circumvent unbridled copying (digital rights management or DRM for short). The first way won’t succeed because, for instance, the internet is by definition a system for copying files; there is no way to legislate around file sharing without making the fundamental function of the internet illegal. The second way could work (because technology is legislation)–it just can’t work in this particular case, because an uncrackable digital rights management system cannot be created. (The reason, if you’re interested, is that DRM is by definition a cryptographic system. Person A wants to send a message to person B without person C being able to copy or read (or listen to) it. The problem is that with all DRM schemes B and C are the same person.)
What’s hiding here is a huge lesson for anyone who wants to change the world. The slow, tortuous, inch-by-inch way to do it is by trying to change people’s minds about something. Many activists are tilting at the windmills of popular opinion in Europe and America, trying to do just this with regard to climate change. Fundamental changes in societal attitudes take generations; in the case of climate change, we don’t have that kind of time. Changing people’s minds is a great idea, we just can’t do it in this case.
A second way to change the world is through legislation. This is only marginally less painful a process than changing people’s minds. Some people thrive on political conflict, and for many people, engaging in an all-out political war feeds their sense that they’re actually doing something–even when no progress is made. Protests and actions have their place, but once again political activism represents a slow, steady pressure that measures its accomplishments across years, if not decades.
The third way to create change is through the market, which is fast, but morally neutral. But the engine of market innovation is technological change.
Technology circumvents the political process. This gives it a peculiar power that we can exploit. For example, it’s important that we stop building new coal plants, and even more so, that we shut down the ones we now use. Getting this accomplished by pushing for legislative changes could take decades–time we don’t have. But current trends show solar power decreasing in cost by 40% in the next three years alone. DARPA is pouring money into an effort to reach 50% efficiency with photovoltaic cells, and it looks like cheap roll-to-roll techniques may be usable to print such cells in bulk. So what happens a few years further on when photovoltaics become cheaper than coal?
I’m not saying that people fighting against coal on the political front are wasting their time; what I am saying is that they are the ones who are holding the line; technology is the cavalry that will win the battle.
We don’t always have the convenience of new and transformative technologies with which to circumvent the political process; the cold war could be seen as a tragic period during which millions of people lived out their lives waiting to acquire the means for change. Luckily, the present moment is different. We now have, or are rapidly developing, disruptive technologies on many fronts. Green power systems will supplant coal; computers and the internet promise new systems of political and social organization.
You may loath technology; many people do. Its power to circumvent the political process is a danger–but it’s also a virtue. In the past that power has hurt us, but technologies like the internet have the potential to take us where we want to go. What’s important–now more than ever–is to be aware that the systems, devices and products we use are not passive objects that we manipulate to achieve our ends. They are actors in and of themselves.