The technology problem under capitalism

We can foresee at least five issues with technology under capitalism even if the technology companies are free from their stockholders’ demands.  They are: self-interests before public interests; replacement of human utilities/jobs by technology with no substitute; technology as a tool for newer but not necessarily better things; technology’s structural weaknesses; and the fatality of technology’s unnatural nature.

Self-interests before public interests

We have a capitalist economy which is designed and structured as a free market for exchanges of products and services for buying and selling, commercialization and profit-making purposes.  It is not designed for a collective or higher purpose, to look at the big picture or care about the overall impact. It is driven by the aggregate self-interests of all individual merchants or companies. They do not concern themselves with solving ‘wicked’ social problems including climate change, because ‘wicked’ problems are hard to solve, and therefore, hard to make money from.  Contrarily, when public investment in certain technology finally bears fruit, private companies can sometimes snatch the almost-finished product and commercialize it for private profit-seeking.  As a result, there are still no definitive technological solutions to our climate change problems once for all.

Replacement of human utilities/jobs by technology with no substitute

Some humans are very smart, but most of us are just ordinary.  We depend on those very smart people to develop and manage technology for our benefits, peace of mind and daily creature comforts that we cannot live without.  We take it for granted on a day-to-day basis that they will always be around to fix any problems at critical times and life will always go back to normal.  The trend has been the smarter and smarter the technology gets, the dumber and dumber the rest of us become.  Like many skills, we used to learn them, retain them in our brains and deploy them on demand.  We used to study maps and memorize routes to get from place to place.  Now, we are totally and completely lost without the Global Positioning System (GPS). That predicament gets us not only lost geographically, but also lost without the ability and skills to navigate our way around the world and master the challenges of our daily lives.

Every time we let technology help us, we are also abdicating some of our personal responsibilities.  When someone or something improves our lives, some of us fail to improve ourselves to keep up, voluntarily or involuntarily, consciously or unconsciously.  After all, everyone cannot become equally smart.  The more advanced some people become, the more left-behind other people are at the other end of the spectrum.  The knowledge gap is never greater and the pace of robots replacing human workers is never more relentless.  When technology keeps replacing more and more human utilities or human jobs, what should happen to those humans?  Capitalism has not offered any satisfactory answers or solutions.

Technology as a tool for newer but not necessarily better things

To most people, technology always embodies certain advantages, benefits and bonuses; and always conveys a sense of positivity, superiority and invincibility because it is so powerful and potent that its effects are often life-changing and its results can be earth-shattering.  It is exactly like a bright shiny object that we are inevitably drawn to.  There are so many of us falling hopelessly in love with it that we choose to overlook or ignore its weaknesses, vulnerabilities, sometimes tenuous rewards and possible backfiring.

We are biased because all the good technology is mixed in with all the mediocre and bad technology, and they all get the same royal treatment.  With capitalism pushes technology in the only direction that will make a profit, we fall in the trap of successively buying newer but not necessarily better things that capitalism and technology have to offer without second thoughts.  Disregard the mindless consumerism and wasteful materialism, commercial technology is still a free-for-all without purposeful and well-intentioned objectives, directions and regulations, and we are all voluntary or involuntary subjects of its experimentations; and oblivious to the final outcomes until they are fully upon us and the harm is already done, e.g. children of thalidomide, video game addiction, texting while driving, etc.  Is there no limit or boundary on how far we should push technology?

Technology’s structural flaws

Technology is artificial and relies on a web of vital human-controlled components, say electrical power, processors, networks, special hardware, proprietary software, etc., to perform its every single task.  Unfortunately those components are not perfect, fail-safe, autonomous, independent and deployable on demand under any circumstances, especially without smart human interventions.  As long as there is a broken or malfunctioning link, the whole system may shut down.  When that happens, that technology is, at best useless, and at worst fatal, to humans.

In addition, when we develop and apply new technology, we are dealing with the realm of unknowns and there are few official or responsible parties, channels or mechanisms to assess and prevent any unintended consequences, especially possible widespread calamity.  Without careful and enforceable guidelines and safeguards, we will be playing with fire at our own peril.  There is a further conundrum that we cannot regulate or control what we do not know, understand and/or anticipate.

The fatality of technology’s unnatural nature

No matter how humans can plan and prepare for our critical and essential technology’s structural flaws, we cannot completely eliminate the probability of catastrophic failure.  As technology advances year on year, there is no one organized pattern or blueprint to follow.  As most of our technology is not backward-compatible and each generation of technology may be piggybacking on the previous generation or not, different haphazard but specialized systems developed from different time periods and with different layers of haphazard but specialized technology may co-exist and work together in an ad hoc patchwork of haphazard but specialized connectivity that very few humans can manage and take charge of.

While we rush to embrace more and more technology into our lives, we do not realize the full extent of our dependence on it and we take it for granted that someone somewhere will always be available to fix it if anything goes wrong.  This blind faith has lulled us into a false sense of security.  While the Y2K computer problems had ended up with minimal disruptions, we would have experienced the alternative and possibly disastrous outcomes had we not discovered the threat early enough and prepare for it in time.

Of course we will never be able to predict and prepare for every contingency or emergency.  While the technology, which is controlling more and more of human life and death, is progressing in leaps and bounds, a certain portion of humans (about 15%) on Earth are still illiterate.  This fact is mind-boggling and should be foreboding.  Such fatalistic situation is best described by E.F. Schumacher, “The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self- balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.”

Nature makes sure that each species’ genetic codes with new adaptations are copied from one generation to generation for its offspring to survive and to perpetuate its life cycle successfully.  Meanwhile, most modern humans cannot conduct childbirth without medical professional help or survive without modern amenities.  How sustainable, self-sufficient and resilient is the human race? What lessons can we learn here?

Let us imagine what if…