The Technological Revolution – A 2nd Look

The Industrial Revolution is Dead

On April 8th, 2008 I wrote an article entitled “The Technological Revolution – Lessons from 1770″ outlining my belief that we are at a pivotal point in American history. One that will have sweeping social, technological and economic impacts on a par with those that occurred during the American Industrial Revolution. I theorized that some of the social and economic shifts we are currently experiencing are elements of the first wave of a modern technological revolution.

Jonathan Pfeiffer, Author of the blog Multivoiced recently wrote an intellectually stimulating response exploring a number of powerful, intriguing counter points. In place of a private discussion about the points and in the name of further exploration of the concepts discussed in our collective posts, I’ve elected to respond here, in the form of a full post. I encourage you all to review his blog, he has some excellent, thought-provoking posts.

My Thesis: We are well into the early stages of the technological revolution and the window of opportunity is quickly passing during which the U.S. can change the way we operate while working to maintain our spot at the leading edge of the new social/political/financial structure that will eventually transform the global landscape. We are faced with an opportunity to not only maintain but strengthen our status as the world’s super power for another 100 years but only if we adjust.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 1: While it is obviously true that a certain kind of economic development is a very good thing, the demand to consolidate the U.S. position at the top of the world is not. What I don’t think Alex understands is that international relations are a non-zero-sum game. The technodevelopmental transformations which Alex finds to be so awe-inspiring should not lead us to an us-versus-them attitude toward our partners around the world.

My Response: While this shouldn’t lead us to an us vs. them attitude toward others around the world, we don’t have to stop our leadership and growth to allow others to catch up and be equals. We must vigorously continue our research and development; we must not be constrained by reactionary policy or an idealistic view of global politics.

To clarify, my world view is largely based on the belief and observation that humans are fundamentally simple animals. Our core social behavior is, in many respects, not unlike a complex version of that found in packs of apes and wild dogs. This social behavior relies on a constantly shifting, evolution-driven, hierarchical structure of Alphas, Betas, Gammas etc. On a more macro level, this system is commonly divided into the small percentage who choose to lead and the majority who choose to follow. Can you imagine what humans could achieve if every member of our species took charge of their individual potentials and chose the enlightened paths of productive intellects? It is a wonderful thought, but sadly, not one that is realistic.

Due to our nature, all social constructs we build defer to a hierarchical system. From personal friendships to governmental power each interaction is subject to these considerations. This phenomenon can be seen in the rise and fall of empires. One popular counter argument to this claim, is that as global communication, the internet, and transportation has improved we have begun to shift into a new global era in which the conventional governmental and social hierarchy have shifted in a fundamental way (eg: the concept of globalism). I disagree. I’m more than willing to acknowledge a shift in the way we receive information, the way we perceive things and how individual dynamics operate.  However, this does not change the basic hierarchical behaviors that drive our system – as has every past system.

In his Counter-Thesis 1 Jonathan makes two specific points. International relations – a zero-sum game? For the sociological reasons outlined previously, I do believe and must counter with stipulations, that it is. While I do believe there is an absolute winner, I do not believe as the concept of a zero-sum game can imply, there must be an absolute loser. Even the individual/organization or nation that might be ranked in last place still benefits, as long as the social structure on a macro level moves forward. If it did not, we would still be pack animals bereft of language. For example, even the Zeta wolf in the pack is safer, stronger and better off as a member of the pack, when compared to how that same wolf would fare operating independently.

The goal of the leader, be it Alpha Wolf or Super Power, is not the zero-sum obliteration of all lesser competition but rather the pursuit, attainment, mastery and maintenance of the pinnacle position and benefits associated therein. I suppose, as Jonathan mentions later in the article, this could be construed as a capitalistic view. I must also argue that despite the attempts of other systems to overcome our hierarchical structure as a species, they suffered many of the same obstacles and corruptions that made it’s implementation neigh impossible. Communism is a primary example.

The second point Jonathan notes, which is integrally connected to the first, has already partially been addressed. It is the nature of a technologically-based us-vs-them mentality. To a degree, I agree with Jonathan. Central to the health and hope of staying competitive in a global economy is our need to integrate, connect, and work together. However, in instances of internet-like technology, each nation is bound by the establishment, maintenance, and most importantly, the control of their own infrastructure. An individual with phone and mail capabilities can respond more quickly and accurately than an individual limited to mail exclusively. America must work to develop and embrace new technologies to maintain a competitive edge. Regressive legislation and the myopic mentality behind it has disastrous potential to limit our advancement and do harm to our global position. This is evidenced in the current pay-per-gigabyte campaign, the leaked treaty information which, as I understand it, would ban, among other things, all P2P technology and other major anti-technology legislation.

My Thesis: Right now America is falling further and further behind every day. Luckily with powerhouses like MIT, Silicon Valley, Microsoft, Google, Dell and a plethora of brilliant individuals and infrastructure we have a slight advantage.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 2: We actually do not have an advantage, if “we” means all of us who are stakeholders to the transactions and public decisions that sustain U.S. supercapitalism. Alex seems to be measuring advantage by way of places and institutions that represent an educated and moneyed elite. (This is a common mistake that even Democrats make. See section V of Mike Davis’s 2007 essay, The Democrats After November.)

My Response: If I understand this statement correctly Jonathan is putting forward the classic and difficult to answer question, “But what of the poor?”. As we focus on the future, creating strong platforms for the 20% – or even the 70% – to continue building upon, what happens to that final 10? What is the responsibility to that Zeta piece of the population, individuals without roofs over their heads, struggling from hunger and all the while living in a first-world nation. On the one hand, as a compassionate human being,  I do feel as though it’s a relevant issue. On the other hand, I also feel it’s an issue more macro in nature than something just tied to technology which is the current subject of this discussion.  As a species we have defied nature by striving to protect and aid the weak. We choose to perpetuate the survival of the “unfit” and that is a tribute to humanity even though we still have a long ways to go.

The article you linked to discusses the technological platform as a political tool;  a prop which has been adopted by political mouths as an end-all solution. The same article also notes that these political representatives are relying heavily on/loyal to major players in the tech industry. I’m advocating something larger and more general than that. I’m advocating the necessity of a shift in the way we view technology as a culture and how we treat it in our cultural dialog. Investment in technological infrastructure, encouragement of up and coming technologies, and the associated industry, needs to become complete fact in place of theorized agenda. It’s an issue that transcends political party or agenda, even economic policy. It’s simple necessity. Review the leaked treaty I linked above – the names on that treaty are mostly democrats, democrats who also receive the lion’s share of their donations from lobbyists in the media and music industries. While these industries are technologically based, they have shown a vested interest in blocking the US’s forward movement and our steps towards maintaining a competitive technological presence. Their unwillingness to adapt is strangling the country’s ability to lead. While not directly related a wonderful lead on the subject is Brafman and Beckstrom’s the Starfish and the Spider.

My Thesis: For America to ride the current wave we need to adopt, embrace, and acknowledge the new role of technology and the worldwide web (WWW). Our political policy and legal approach to internet/technological issues cannot cling to our old systems while stifling growth with regressive policies. We must embrace invention and focus on creating a culture that not only understands technology, but is driven by it. Already, every aspect of an average American’s daily life has been effected. We may not acknowledge it, but from entertainment to food distribution, our lives are now driven by modern technology, especially the WWW.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 3: As Dale Carrico explained, there is no such thing as technology. This means that we cannot oppose, or as Alex calls us to do, favor, technology in general.

Much of the remainder of the essay, which Alex obviously put some significant thought into, is a list of ostensible historical parallels which reads like something out of a Ray Kurzweil book on the Singularity. We have all the usual suspects, like the proliferation of railroads and canals compared to the up swinging curve of computational power. It’s all nothing more than transit and commercial infrastructure, writes Alex.

My Response: Carrico makes an interesting point. Though to me it focuses on the semantics of words, instead of the nature of the core issues. From an anthropological point of view, every advancement we make is based on improved technology. (Defining technology as the application of science to industry.) Referring back to my initial example citing the Industrial Revolution as an illustration – I imagine we can all agree that the Industrial Revolution was nothing more than another technological revolution at its core. A drastic shift based on new processes and machinery. In that respect there are without question more fitting titles – some might say the Digital Revolution, yet others might prefer the Internet Revolution.

Regardless of the title we choose, I believe Cerrico’s argument makes the assumption, perhaps rightly so, that we are always advancing and that as a result we are all inherently technologically open. What it fails to give credence to, however, is eras of accelerated adoption and significant technological inventions which drastically shift and alter the nature of civilization. The canal, the highway, the mapping of the stars, flight etc. the flip side of which are also eras like the Dark Ages, the fall of the Greek Empire, the collapse of the various eastern civilizations etc. During these times great stores of knowledge and technology were not only rejected but lost. Remember as well that it was most often during these periods that the greatest human suffering occurred. History leaves little doubt in my mind that embracing technology is of greater benefit to humanity than the negative impacts of rejecting it. Subject to those extremes is a spectrum to which we as individuals and as nations have to consider and respond. The nature of those responses chart the direction and speed at which we will advance.

My argument and proposed action is based on the belief that we are at the edge of one of those great periods of advancement, largely made possible by a cultural psyche that has focused and invested in pursuing and embracing new technologies. That the impact of this next evolutionary period will re-define the way we operate and re-establish the nature of the global social structure. Already technologies like the Internet 2 and virtual worlds with millions of residents are springing to life. The ripples of these changes will be felt across the surface of the globe by ALL living creatures. We must be cautious and studious as we move forward working to avoid doing harm, and always remember our humanity, but we must never the less move forward and embrace these technologies or fall back upon ourselves.

Once again, I’d like to thank and credit Jonathan for offering up a number of excellent links and varied view points. Phenomenal food for thought!

*Edit* I just came across this link today in a speech by Presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the subject of technology. It’s a must read.