Technology Is Not Neutral

In a Munk debate, a few famous authors debated whether the world was getting better or worse. This took place pre-pandemic, in 2015. One of the speakers was Malcolm Gladwell and at some during the conversation, he had this to say:

So if you talk to epidemiologists they will talk about the threat of you know species extinctions referring to human beings — the reason that we talk now about species extinctions with respect to human beings is because we are so connected — that makes it possible for some unbelievably lethal organism virus whatever to spread all over the globe very very quickly and if you talk to epidemiologists they will tell you we’ve come awfully close on certain occasions quite recently precisely because of that fact

Malcolm’s debate partner was Alain De Botton. On the other side was Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley. What was the latter’s reason for believing that things were getting better?

Below is Pinker’s statement on how the world is getting better.

First, life itself. A century and a half ago the human lifespan was 30 years. Today, it is 70 and it shows no signs of leveling off.

Second, health. Look up smallpox and cattle plague in Wikipedia — the definitions are in the past tense — smallpox was a disease indicating the two of the greatest sources of misery in human existence have been eradicated forever. The same will soon be true for polio and guinea worm and we are currently decimating hookworm, malaria, filariasis, measles, rubella and yaws.

Third, prosperity. Two centuries ago, 85 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that’s down to 10% and according to the UN by it could be zero on every continent people are working fewer hours and can afford more food, clothes, lighting, entertainment, travel, phone calls, data, and beer.

Fourth, peace. The most destructive human activity, war between powerful nations, is obsolescent. Developed countries have not fought a war for seventy years, great powers, for sixty years.

Civil wars continue to exist, but they are less destructive than interstate wars and there are fewer of them. This pin is a souvenir from a trip earlier this week to Colombia which is in the process of ending the last war in the Western Hemisphere.

Globally, the annual death rate from wars has been in bumpy decline from 300 per hundred thousand during World War 2 to twenty two in the 1950s, nine in the 70’s, 5 in the 80’s, 1.5 in the 90’s, and 0.2 in the 0's.

Even the horrific civil war in Syria has only budged the numbers up back up to where they were in 2000.

Fifth, safety. Global rates of violent crime are falling in many places precipitously the world’s leading criminologists have calculated there within years we can cut the global rate of homicide in half.

Sixth, freedom. Despite backsliding in this or that country the global democracy index is at an all-time high. More than percent of the world’s population now lives in open societies — the highest percentage ever.

Seven, knowledge in 1820, 17 % of people had a basic education. Today, 82 percent do and the percentage is rapidly heading into a hundred.

Eight, human rights. Ongoing global campaigns have targeted child labor, capital punishment, human trafficking, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and the criminalization of homosexuality. Each has made measurable inroads and if history is a guide, these barbaric customs will go the way of human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, chattel, slavery, heretic burning, torture executions, public hangings, debt, bondage, dueling, freakshows, foot-binding, laughing at the insane and the designated goon in hockey.

Nine, gender equity. Global data show that women are getting better educated, marrying later, earning more and in more positions of power and influence.

Finally, intelligence. In every country IQ has been rising by three points a decade so what is the response of declinists to all of this depressing good news? It is just you wait. Any day now a catastrophe will halt this progress or push it into reverse but with the possible exception of war none of these indicators is subject to chaotic bubbles and crashes like the stock market.

In this debate, one side argued that technology made the world a much better place, and that our only job should be to make sure that we keep things rolling in this direction. The other side argued that the direction we have taken isn’t necessarily so good, because for every step in the right direction, we have taken a misstep in another direction.

The world is more interconnected? Great, that means that diseases can spread so much faster and wipe out the entire species. Our tools are so much more advanced? Fantastic, self-destruction is now only a click of a button away.

In other words, we have not really made progress, we have simply traded old risks for new risks. The faster we move, and the closer we are to each other, and the more interdependent, the more vulnerable are to errors, and the less time we have to respond intelligently.

While writing this, there is war taking place in Ukraine.

Much of the discussion is centered around technology. Although we don’t like to think about it, technology has really taken the center of attention. There is some discussion of the history of the conflict, the practical ways out, the suffering of the people involved in it. But the most focused discussions are about technological risks — cyber war, chemical war, biological war, nuclear war.

Pundits on cable news and of the Twitter variety discuss these risks, but of course, they have no idea what they are talking about. Gladwell and others before him had a hunch that being so connected could have a downside, because of epidemiologists and statisticians. But he couldn’t have imagined COVID-19. In the same way, we can be wary of the other disasters that result from technological risks, but no one can possibly understand the true repercussions.

And that is the ultimate trade-off with technology. It expands the size of the abyss. And contrary to what you may think, technology is not neutral.

To be neutral means to not take a side. Technological progress clearly takes sides. There are clearly many variables that are favored by technology. For example, pace.

Technology is not indifferent to pace. The greater our technology, the faster things move. What does that mean? Well, if you run really fast, you might get to the finish line before everyone else, or you might trip and break your neck.

The clock, moreover, is a piece of power-machinery whose “product” is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science….time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. To become “as regular a clockwork” was the bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success. The increasing tempo of civilization led to a demand for greater power: and in turn power quickened the tempo. P.16

Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford

Technology is not ambivalent to power. The better the technology, the more power we have. Is power a good thing? Well, it depends. Ever hear the quote, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?”

If there is any truth to that, then there must be truth to the assumption that greater technology must inevitably lead to greater corruption.

Do all technologies enhance speed, power, or both? No, but the world we are in incentivizes the development of technologies that do. And since we cannot develop technology without such a context, it’s purely academic and unnecessary to discuss the nature of technology any differently. For all intents and purposes, technology and the system that feeds its development are one and the same. They are an entity, and such an entity is far from neutral, predictable, controllable, or understandable.

Originally published at on March 16, 2022.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store