Wikipedia says it reasonably well—technological determinism is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives its social structure and cultural values. It is simplistic, wrong, and if subscribed to can get us in a heap of trouble. Our technology is to serve us, not the opposite. Fortunately, we humans often turn against directions technology seems to be taking (in the U.S. poison gas in warfare, automatic weapons for civilians, DDT, CFC’s). We should turn against nuclear warheads, adding to global warming through atmospheric pollution, species depletion, and other such methods of destroying our way of life, but we seem to be unable as a species to do so. In that sense, technical determinism exists —we seem to be captives of technologies that in the long run can do us no good. But hopefully we will break free of them.
How about the technology associated with the “information” revolution. It is certainly interesting to watch. Great good is coming from it, but also problems. An acquaintance of mine is now a fellow at Singularity University in Silicon Valley (specifically at Moffett field). It’s mission is “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges” (pretty modest, huh? Although I do have problems with exponentials, because they do approach infinity).
The founders are Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Diamandis. Kurzweil is a well known inventor, thinker, author and the Director of Engineering at Google. Diamandis is a successful entrepreneur and the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which offers “large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs.” They are both clearly brilliant people.
The singularity that is the name of the university, and the one Kurzweil talks about, is a point in time at which the combination of humans and computers, enhanced by biological knowledge and intervention, will become smarter than humans, with unpredictable results. Kurzweil would like to see us move more rapidly to this point. A good explanation of this singularity concept from Wikipedia is here. .
I was talking to my friend the other evening, and she was expressing wonderment at the thought of machines taking over so much of what we have historically done. and wasn’t sure she liked the thought. I told her that from what I knew of them, the Singularity folk were Technological Determinists. I don’t believe there will be a quick “singularity”. First of all, even at the present speed of change, an extraordinary number of people are being left behind and becoming somewhat unhappy at the whole process of being asked to conform to computers and the internet. Secondly, when computer/human teams become better than people at tasks that can be solved through logic (chess is a good example), the tasks no longer seem as impressive to us. Finally, for better or worse, many of our more important problems seem to be solved (?) by politics, not logic.
If the use of computers leads to bothersome changes in culture, we will make changes in the software and hardware to better meet our needs. Software and hardware are products, after all, and high quality products are to make our lives better, not less satisfying. I think we will soon see some positive changes to protect us from constant marketing, protect individual and national privacy, and that we will get more realistic about social networking. If not, we will see a turn away from the magic of the internet.
Great good is coming from our integration of computers into our lives, but also damage (consumption of personal time, disappearance of satisfying links to the economy, misinformation through marketing, loss of deep thinking, etc.). The people at Singularity University are believers and futurists. They play an important role in getting people to think. But the messages they deliver, like those of most of us, are biased by their beliefs.