In my column, I observed that we have been incapable of judging where technologies are headed, hence we should not relinquish a new technology, based strictly on reason. Ray agrees with my conclusion, but for a different reason: He sees technology growing exponentially, thereby offering us the opportunity to alleviate human distress and hasten future economic gains. From his perspective, my point is “irrelevant,” and my views on the future of technology are “skeptical.” Let’s punch through to the underlying issues, which are vital, for they point at a fundamental and all-too-often ignored relationship between technology and humanity.
Ray’s exponential-growth argument is half the story: No doubt, the number of transistors on a chip has grown and will continue to grow for a while. But transistors and the systems made with them are used by people. And that’s where exponential change stops! Has word-processing software, running on millions of transistors, empowered humans to contribute better writings than Socrates, Descartes or Lao Tzu?
Technologies have undergone dramatic change in the last few centuries. But people’s basic needs for food, shelter, nurturing, procreation and survival have not changed in thousands of years. Nor has the rapid growth of technology altered love, hate, spirituality or the building and destruction of human relationships. Granted, when we are in the frying pan, surrounded by the sizzling oil of rapidly changing technologies, we feel that everything around us is accelerating. But, from the longer range perspective of human history and evolution, change is far more gradual. The novelty of our modern tools is counterbalanced by the constancy of our ancient needs.
As a result, technological growth, regardless of its magnitude, does not automatically empower us. It does so only when it matches our ability to use it for human purposes. And that doesn’t happen as often as we’d like. Just think of the growing millions of AIDS cases in Africa, beyond our control. Or, in the industrial world, ask yourself whether we are truly better off surrounded by hordes of complex digital devices that force us to serve them rather than the other way around.
Our humanity meets technology in other ways, too: In forecasting the future of technology, Ray laments that most people use “linear thinking” that builds on existing patterns, thereby missing the big “nonlinear” ideas that are the true drivers of change. Once again, this is only half the story: In the last three decades, as I witnessed the new ideas and the 50-some startups that arose from the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, I observed a pattern: Every successful technological innovation is the result of two simultaneous forces-a controlled insanity needed to break away from the stranglehold of current reason and ideas, and a disciplined assessment of potential human utility, to filter out the truly absurd. Focusing only on the wild part is not enough: Without a check, it often leads to exhibitionistic thinking, calculated to shock. Wild ideas can be great. But I draw a hard line when such ideas are paraded in front of a lay population as inevitable, or even likely.