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The fallacy of technological inevitability

When discussing technology scientists and dreamers of science are often quoted to make a point. I want to make a MarićSteinian one here ( an idea attributed to Albert Einstein, although it could have been actually the concept of Mileva Marić and we’ll never know – so I will call it the MarićSteinian axiom for the rest of this post):

To solve a problem, we cannot use the same kind of thinking that created it.

I really like this idea – you’ll see it everywhere in this blog (even my most recent other post)! It’s that good, right up there with ‘the universe is stranger than we know, and stranger than we’re able to know’ – which is attributed to various famous physicists who use slightly different words – and is also really everyone who ever indulged in psychedelic substances and literally saw the universe in at least six dimensions.

Back on topic – while first world technological societies love the MarićSteinian axiom, we by and large don’t get it.

What it means is that we need to break down the patterns which we’ve used forever; reassess them, make new ones. To use a physical analogy of reconstructing a house – using the MarićSteinian axiom we assess the house. We pull it apart, and use our assessment and knowledge acquired since last building a house to design a new house, with a new approach to thinking about what a house should be in the first place.

What we do as a society instead is put a fresh coat of paint on the house and call it a new paradigm.

Yes, there’s some snark in there, some of which is underserved – many, many devote their lives to real, tangible, structural change. This is an ode to all those humans, and I hope it’s a fun reflection – with some serious ideas shining through.

I’d also like to add that the ideas here are not new, and not unique to me – they are the result of many conversations over decades, with many co-conspirators. Let’s go.

What is technological inevitability?

This is the easy part: technological inevitability is the pattern which gives is assertions like:

‘AI is coming and will take your jobs’

‘Driverless cars are coming…; flying cars are coming…’

‘Autonomous warfare is coming…’

‘Blockchain is the solution for…’

‘the world will be fixed if only we develop [insert technology here]’

‘by 2020 the market for thing will be worth….’

‘by 20.. we will need to mine more than the currently know reserves of …’

There are more, hopefully that’s enough to give an idea. In short, technological inevitability is the dogmatic insistence that some technological thing is definitely coming to save/eat/deliver/us all. Being a worker in technology and data space, I see these assertions all the time, pretty much every day.

So why is technological inevitability a fallacy?

That’s why you’re here – to read, absorb, possibly get angry and defensive about. Why is technological inevitability is fallacy? The answer is long.

The past is fucked, we can’t predict a better future using it

To set the scene: the past is fucked, and in order recreate a future we need to abandon many ideas of what technology means and start over. Our current tech – the machine I write this post on, the network you use to read it, the governance structures which let us spool thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cables across ocean floors and land infrastructure on some lucky (maybe) pacific island to run switches, the way we organise manufacturing – all of it – is built on principles devised for colonial expansion and empire building – and not really updated since.

We cannot build the future we need unless we abandon colonialism and it’s methods for essentially automating humans. We fear that automation of systems will lead to automation of people – too late, we did it to ourselves in the white west hundreds of years ago. I’m pretty sure other colonial cultures are similar – but I don’t know, because I’m a white westie. Sugata Mitra expounds the idea pretty well in a TED talk – we’ve been busy building parts for a machine that no longer exists; and those parts are ourselves.

…we’ve also been busy exporting that principle across the planet as a model to aspire to!

Our current framework of thinking about how technology operates is a blinker. It blinds us. We literally cannot (as out physicist and tripper friends will tell us) think outside the box we’ve built for ourselves – unless we change ourselves. We are not able to predict the technology that might appear in the future – so we project old, familiar models into the unknown, because we don’t know how to step into the void that is the future as it arrives.

Automation is an Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. We first automated ourselves, so we can only conceive of and build systems which reflect our own state of automation. A self-fulfilling prophetic wheel.

We make the stuff!

Technology is only inevitable if we cause it to be. Flying cars are my favourite example – we’ve been dreaming about them for 50 years, they’re iconic in pop culture, and sufficient people with sufficient cash who dreamed that same dream 50 years ago are still alive. So we will probably at some point get flying cars.

Should we get flying cars – or autonomous cars? We don’t even know how to stay safe in non-flying cars! Perhaps bicycles and walking infrastucture are actually a better option; which would encourage human evolution and connection far more than flying cars.

Unfortunately, we hold onto an old dream, and pretend it’s inevitable. The military love flying cars, except they call them ‘evacuation devices’ – because the current deal is to fly a huge helicopter or other aircraft – which is massive and expensive and has a big crew. Another use case is regional transport using smaller aircraft. However – in my lifetime ago, we used to fly smaller cheaper aircraft all the time. As a kid I bumped across south Australia in a 6 seater to get to specialist appointments in Adelaide – but we kinda forget that small, low personnel flying machines already exist… perhaps because its bad for marketing. In the modern mantra, there are blackhawks or flying cars, and nothing in between.

So when we talk about ‘the technology is coming’ as if it were inevitable, we’re wrong. We make it, we can decide what to do – we’re not powerless.

The marketspiel, it hurtses!

Key drivers for the perpetuation of technological inevitability are, of course, money and ego. In our current western society there are piles of cash and kudos for getting things done fastestfirst, regardless of the implications for society, environment, and the future.

So we’re sold new technologies as solutions – and some of them are! However, we’re not yet at that point collectively of being able to say ‘wait – do we really need that?’. Our inherently flawed human automaton has us so busy just getting by that thinking past next week is hard. How can we properly assess a technology, when there is a firehose of things all proposing to be the next big solution?

We can’t. And don’t.

So… what should we do, if we should stop talking shit about new technology?

Remember who, and where we are. We’re great at forgetting – primarily that we’re at once powerful and vulnerable, supple and brittle. We’re deeply experienced, we can perceive the universe and all around us in unique and powerful ways.

The past is also not fucked, and we can build a better future using it.

Wait what? I’m contradicting myself already? Hi humans, I’m human too.

As well as being fucked, our past is also unfucked. Australia is almost unique in the world, we live on land which has continuously supported a technological society for 60 000+ years! (holy crap recently discovered to be maybe up to to 120 000 years: ). So we have a model here – a past we can draw from and learn from, to discover why and how it worked – instead of studying and repeating over the mistakes of cultures that broke down!

In addition to that incredible continuous span of handed down wisdom, there’s a tiny section in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which spoke about how we use, or sometimes not use, and choose technologies. The provocation Jared makes is that Australian Aboriginals traded with southeast asian and even northern asian nations for thousands of years. Why did they not adopt armour, bows, horses, and other advances?

…and provides an interesting theory – that these technologies were assessed, and thrown away. We, as humans, do not always choose technological solutions by default.

We have trained ourselves to do so (see the previous section).

We kinda know this, but it’s hard to see past the noise in 2019. Our problem here is ego – we’re not able to look past the fucked parts of the past to see where the past is unfucked, because we’re not able to put ourselves into the frame of mind required to see it (recall the Marićsteinian axiom?). So we need to change ourselves. And part of that process is taking on the idea that when people from cultures older than our own speak, we need to stop assuming they’re idiots and remember that humans have been smart for at least 120 000 years.

Modern cultures know stuff. We know great and amazing stuff- we have microscopes and can keep our teeth past 30 years. It’s pretty shit hot. But life isn’t a dichotomy – we can kind of blur the old stuff and the new stuff together, like listening when grandma says ’that’s too much rosemary for your smashed avo slow roasted turducken’. Even though old gran never cooked turducken or ate smashed avo before in her life, she knows… it’s in her bones.

It’s in our bones too, but we give up that power and ignore it all too readily, because we’ve told ourselves over generations that the old ways are bad, new things are always good, and technology is inevitable.

By the way, turducken is an abomination don’t do it. The Vedyas would say it’ll mess up your digestion, so when you’re in your blockchain tech startup pitch workshop all suited up and farting a storm the next day it wasn’t the rosemary, it’s because you’re making yourself try to digest too many types of protein at once and most people can’t. And we knew this shit 5 000 years ago!

So – should we burn our computers to the ground?

No.

Our relationship with technology can, and will change. Uno’s Garden, a fantastic work for humans of all ages, shines a light on the path. Balance will come – and in order to create it, we need to look past technology, around the loop and back to ourselves.

Technology is a great thing – we can use it to do amazing stuff, but need to remember:

  • technology is never neutral – it carries the bias of its creator(s)
  • technology is never inevitable – we make it!
  • …and sometimes we need to decide to not make it!

The considerations of what technology means, and how we should approach the new – is not new. It’s been fantastic to see a whole lot of re-focus on how we should and could and might work with the stuff we build as 2019 comes into fruition as a year. We’re beginning to remember ‘hey we built this stuff.. why is our relationship with it so powerless and toxic?’.

Which is great! We are beginning to heal that relationship!

OK, I’ve had a rant – what would I do?

Ranting is pointless without an alternative to suggest. Destruction always must pave the way for creation.

So – what do I think we should do to help with our technofetishism? How can we teach ourselves to think and perceive the problem differently – to engage with the MarićSteinian axiom?

To be honest I started a long time ago – rebelling against my parents’ religion; smoking heaps of dope; skateboarding. Then learning theoretically about how humans develop at university, travelling, seeking to engage with the world in fresh ways (someone gave me a lonely planet guide when I left the country for two years – I never read it and left it at home), heading to the mountains and becoming a tiny soul in a universe beyond my own comprehension; then devoting ten years to an obscure yet super important piece of our earth system; walking on sea ice in Antarctica; flying along ice shelves the size of countries.

I’ve seen parts of this planet that make our grandest technical achievements seem like cheap junk. I don’t need to look to mars, I know there is so much incredible on this planet that people have never seen or explored, it’s mind blowing. Even ourselves – we are mind blowing and should never forget that.

…so reinventing myself, over and over – and then having to apply that in practice as a parent – in the process ‘re-parenting’ myself; giving myself permission to fuck up, make mistakes, get it wrong – and feel supported anyway which I never had as a kid and society doesn’t give me as a grown-up.

This is critical – in the dominant, rich, global north (and north-in-south) we’re taught to generate and maintain a facade of invulnerability and success. Generations of doing so has led to our current planetary crisis! And it’s actually bullshit.

Perhaps the key to the MarićSteinian axiom is just that – allowing ourselves to make mistakes, to reinvent, to admit failure in a deep and real and vulnerable fashion. To humble ourselves in the face of 100 000 years of our own evolution and experience, and stop being such smartarses because we have mobile phones.

Our ancestors hunted mammoths with sticks and ate them; could navigate land and sea by knowing how to read the patterns of the world; knew who they were and where they were, in the context of the entire universe. We designed cities and structures based around ourselves and our physical and spiritual needs. We can remember who we are, and in doing so, learn to make vastly better decisions about how we apply tools we build; or whether we need to build them at all.

The end/summary/positive thing to finish

Thanks for getting this far into my rant. I’d love to hear your thoughts, good, bad or otherwise. I think I can wrap up the post neatly:

Nothing about technology is inevitable, and nothing about technology is neutral – if ’thing X’ is ‘coming’ – it needs to be built, bought, approved. Nothing gets there on its own; and we discover that sometimes it might be a dream that went past its use by date, and we need to let go.

We can also discover much about ourselves from our past; without needing to predict the future. There’s no need to be the creatures of fear we train ourselves to be – using technological inevitability, among other things, as a tool to oppress ourselves with. I love that we are such amazing and capable beings, we can cast ourselves into the void of the uncertain and unknown without fear if we choose to do so!

I hope this inspires some thinking and feeling – however that turns up for you.

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