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Prophets of Inevitability

Human choices–not immutable forces of nature–govern the development and adoption of technologies.

Are we all agreed, then, that technological change is the true destiny of the human species? As I read the books and articles her-alding the new millennium, there seems almost uniform consensus that the twenty-first century will be characterized exclusively by technical advances and the quick adaptation of society to their requirements. If there are other sources of hope and renewal in the works, we seem less and less able to imagine them.

Most remarkable about these technology-centered visions of the future is their use of outmoded language of inevitability. Commentators speak straight-faced about ineluctable forces, historical laws, and irrevocable impacts, employing imagery reminiscent of late nineteenth century romanticism. In his book The Future of Capitalism, for example, Lester Thurow depicts technological change as a “tectonic force” that we must obey but can never hope to master. The best we can do, Thurow says, is to read these forces and position ourselves for maximum advantage. In a similar vein, Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly enlightens us with a list of twelve “laws” for the era of digital electronics-laws that he says are bringing “an upheaval in our commonwealth, a social shift that re-orders our lives.”

In reports about specific kinds of technical development, proclamations of inevitability often lapse into fatalism. The weekly news magazines have told their readers about how workplace surveillance, online monitoring, and electronic networks generate data trails that erode our privacy. While these stories sometimes offer advice on how to protect the security of personal information, they typically assume that privacy-destroying electronics are so deeply entrenched that systematic remedies are impossible. In “No Place to Hide,” a report in Forbes on the tracking devices that surround people’s every move, Ann Marsh agonizes that new information systems may “bring on Orwell’s 1984, making us all slaves of the state.” Does this mean we’ll need new legislation and stronger citizen action to counter this threat? Not at all. Marsh concludes that “the damned thing is practically here. Let the chips fall where they may.”

The irony here is that among historians and sociologists who study the interactions of technology and society, ideas about necessity and inevitability are now considered laughable. A careful examination of how emerging technologies develop reveals not “forces” or “laws,” but instead a panoply of social, cultural, and political choices. Technological change is a sphere of contingency, negotiation, and conflict in which nothing is historically necessary.

From the shaping of vast systems in telecommunications to the design of min-ute features on an emerging micro-chip, one always finds the shaping hand of engineers, corporate planners, and social interests with a stake in particular outcomes. The reason our household refrigerators use electric motors rather than burn natural gas, for example, stems not from the “inevitability” of electricity but from the influence of the electric power industry over consumer choices decades ago.

Why, then, do predictions of a technological inevitability now have such strong popular appeal? For the techno-prophets, the incentives are obvious. Like ancient seers and soothsayers, they can claim special knowledge of the future, advising a benighted public on where things are headed, raking in handsome lecture fees and book contracts in the process. What ordinary folks derive from these future visions is the comfort of believing that the future has already been scripted and that (if they scramble fast enough) they can find agreeable parts in the drama.

But those who herald a technologically driven future are, in effect, advising we give up our role in choices about which technologies are chosen and why. Suggested instead is the Rip Van Winkle approach: just go to sleep and we (the anointed) will wake you when it’s over.

For now, the energetic sales pitch for Van Winkle-ism appears to be working. Large segments of the population apparently believe that innovations simply pour from a bubbling volcano, giving shape to new ways of living as the lava cools. The danger is that people who ought to be engaged in deciding how to use technology in schools, clinics, workplaces, and homes will abdicate their civic responsibility. Why, these people might wonder, should they waste their energy fighting the inevitable?

In this manner, there is a powerful “law” that could well govern developments in years to come-the law of self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone thinks technological trends are inescapable, they probably will become so. That is why those serious about the human prospect should reject the rhetoric of fatalism and demand something more substantial. When we hear pompous blather about “laws” and “forces,” we owe it to ourselves to interrupt, and steer the conversation toward a different vocabulary-one encompassing terms like “alternatives” and “choices.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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