I recently read this wonderful article from Vox called The biggest lie tech people tell themselves — and the rest of us. In it, they propose that the progress we’re making in technology, with the debates in ethics and in the erosion of privacy is usually justified by people with mantras like “it’s the natural evolution of technology” and “it’s the way progress works” and “it was going to happen eventually”. They propose that these are invalid excuses.
Humanity as environments for technology to be naturally selected
One of the primary points made is that natural evolution doesn’t work in the way that the technological “evolution” works. They propose counter examples on how the process of natural selection is radically different from the forces driving the technology forward. A good example is that evolution does not lobby for companies’ interests. The point is well made in the phrase: “[evolution…] makes mistakes, not plans”.
And while that is true, I think the plans that our companies and our interests make are not what drives the progress of technology. It is the survival of a particular technology or practice, their adaptation to our society and the acceptance that they get, the reproduction that allow them to become viral from person to person and make it a daily thing… that is what makes technology move forward. In a general sense of technology as a practice that as humankind we will cultivate and proceed with, the technology does need to be “naturally” selected.
Take an example: weren’t mp3 players already around and alive until the iPod became the standard? What made the iPod stand out? Regardless of your answer, anything else had to be compared to the iPod from there on. The product made it so it survived the general trend of any other product/technology that existed, and became something that was allowed to mutate further, mostly into the iPhones that we still brand today.
Yes, corporations and their interest had something to do with that. But weren’t they always? Didn’t Microsoft also pour millions into making Zune the mp3 player that would go down in history? Apple probably did something different, and did something well. Maybe it was just timing. Maybe it’s luck. Whatever it is, one of them survived and passed on its genes, one of them didn’t.
Similar things happen with any kind of technology. The examples that the article mentions are just fads that come and go (same with the ones I counter-proposed here). I think we’re missing the bigger picture.
If we can consider technology as a set of adopted “inventions” that we have, in a majority of population, allowed into our lives, then each invention (organism) has to fight for their survival. Eventually, some of them are good enough that they stay (adaptation), or groundbreaking enough that they solve a new problem (mutation). As such, we keep changing and adapting new technologies.
Technology that we adapted to our daily lives is indeed technology that survived that selection. It is natural selection.
We can’t stop progress… can we?
The article reasons that we justify this progress with natural metaphors so that we remove from ourselves the responsibility of stopping progress. If “it’s going to happen anyway”, then why stop it?
Now, it is not the allure of “progress” that drives consumer adoption. It is the benefits that technology provides that do it.
We didn’t accept Facebook’s erosion of privacy because we wanted “progress”, we did it because not doing it meant we wouldn’t be able to connect with so many people as we did before.
We didn’t accept Google’s tracking our every email because it felt cool to be part of the Google family, but rather because they gave us 1 GB storage when the biggest competitor (hotmail) would give us 20 MBs and we were unable to receive emails after our aunt forwarded a ppt with puppies. This change is what allowed 20 years later to accept that sending an email is a somewhat effective method of communication with your customers. Just think about all the “we’ve changed our policy” emails you probably got recently. That would not fly in the 90s. Banks offer you to go paperless and receive emails now, something that was unthinkable because the technology was so limited.
The distinction seems minimal, even pedantic, but it is relevant: we don’t steer our lives towards the conceptual progress. We simply hunt the immediate benefits.
It is our communal decisions on these compromises that we can call “progress”. We decide to sacrifice some securities in exchange for some benefits. Usually, those securities are privacy and our data – since this is what technology mostly feeds on. The more it knows, the more it can do.
So, can we stop progress? If we’re being pedantic about the word, no, because whatever action we take will be progress. Not being so pedanctic, can we stop unethical progress? We can take a different path, but the decision has to be made by mankind as a whole. How can we individually make that happen? We can’t. We can help influence it, raise awareness, help write and approve regulations, become activitists… but if Amazon’s Alexa is still a success after we learned that it listens to our conversations, that decision has already been made.
So what can we do?
It is not impossible to turn back on some decisions – or even make new ones. But it needs to be a comunal effort, and that’s what makes it challenging.
We have examples of that happening and how we’ve grown towards that. After Skinner’s experiments on operant conditioning we decided, as a species, that being subjects of destructive experiments was unethical and we banned that altogether. Will that still happen? The answer is yes (consider the CRISPR babies) – but if we keep our stance, those advances will not become common enough to be accepted into society. This is a wonderful example of how our general sense of ethics is gatekeeping unethical progress.
We, and what we decided not to do, are the paths we decided not to take, and the technologies we decided to kill. We, and what we do, is progress.