FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Technology: Chicken or Egg?

The Red Herring blog has a provocative series of essays exploring whether technology drives progress, or vice versa. The essays' argument is that "technological determinism" -- the belief that technology alone determines our destiny -- is false. Cultures have strong influence over the technologies they create, and communities apply the technologies that make sense to them. This, indeed, is part of the classic definition of disruptive technology: for a technology to disrupt, it must perform a task as well or better than existing technologies at a reasonable cost. Technology for technonogy's sake disrupts nothing.

Tracking the trajectory of new technologies is one of the most vexing tasks of anyone concerned with technology or futurism. The Red Herring essays defend their argument by noting that the best technology doesn't always win in the marketplace (Apple vs. IBM, Beta vs. VHS). So how can one predict what path technology will take? What will be a hit, and what will flop?

The one case where the theory of technological determinism makes most sense is when a technology is so revolutionary that it enables users in ways that they never considered before. Thomas Edison's phonograph, for instance, was a wholly original creation, not an improvement on an existing concept, as was his light bulb. When phonographs were first demonstrated, they were seen as so radical that observers thought they were instruments of the devil. Even so, market forces drove the phonograph's development; it never occurred to Edison to sell music recordings (he envisioned it as a business dictation tool), yet that proved to be the phonograph's most lucrative purpose.

In the end, the success or failure of a new technology is determined by a host of cultural, economic and regulatory factors, the combination of each of which is unique. The Internet, for instance, existed for nearly 30 years before the dotcom boom of the 1990s. Yet it didn't enter the popular consciousness until public access to it was allowed in the early '90s. That, combined with the rise of easy-to-use computers, the World Wide Web protocols, graphical web browsers, and the ability of computer users to dial into networks via modem created a "perfect storm" that led to the technology's explosive growth. So many variables are what make the futurist's job so difficult... as well as so fascinating.