Saturday, January 8, 2011

What Tech Trades Off

Ignoring his sometimes outlandish claims, Kevin Kelly's book What Technology Wants has much wisdom to dispense. At its core, the book describes the trade-off between protection and freedom, with respect to a society's level of tech use.

At one extreme, a society can minimize its adoption of technology, protecting its members from potential dangers, but limiting their choices. The Amish are an example of such prudishness.

At the other extreme, a society can maximize its use of technology, allowing its members the most possible choices, but limiting its ability to protect people from the potential dangers of tech. Is anyone so audacious? Kelly doesn't offer examples, but presumably some transhumanists would fit here.

Some benefits of protection from technology are:
  • The opportunity to nudge people towards choices they might consider more desirable upon sober reflection. (e.g., drug regulation, exploitation in compensated medical trials)
  • Reduced existential risk, if a particular tech could wipe humans out, and restricting tech development will decrease that probability. (controversial, but nuclear winter, bacteria with reversed chirality, exponentially self-improving unfriendly AI, runaway anthropogenic global warming, etc., could all fit)
Some benefits of freedom in technology are:
  • An increased ability for people to express their unique preferences and match their aptitudes to their environment. (e.g., transportation tech allows people to move away from the place they were born, if they find it disagreeable)
  • More rapid feedback via proxies for natural phenomena enables more experimentation, which increases knowledge. (e.g., changes in blood pressure allow you to gauge heart attack risk, so you can measure the effect of a given treatment before you actually die)
Most everyone agrees that by increasing the exposure to tech, you broadly accelerate tech development. As a counter example, think of the Amish, who sometimes free-ride on old tech, but provide few novel inventions themselves. This positive loop makes the consequences of the above trade-off more pressing.

In the long-run, it's hard to see how tech adopters wouldn't out-compete non-tech adopters. This is why the expansion of tech is in some senses "inevitable." But evolution requires replication, and nerds marry late and have few if any kids, so who knows.

(Thanks to the insightful Tyson B for a convo about this)