Is the Future Controllable? If We Could, Should We?

Copyright 2020. All rights reserved

Human progress often takes place when an individual genius offers an innovation that transforms everything. We benefit from an ancient inventor who decided that carrying things would be better by using wheels. The same with the domesticators of fire. Ask anyone what inventions are society-changing and they will rattle off electricity, the light bulb, vaccines, automobiles, radio, TV, and the Internet. We adopt these new technologies because they are demonstrably superior to what we did before. The problem is that there is an unacknowledged period where the innovation begins to show its flaws or, more worrisome, have negative effects.

Let’s look at some quick examples: Automobiles allow us to easily travel long distances in physical comfort. But they also produce suburban sprawl and spew carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. They also support sedentary lifestyles that can lead to our maladies of diabetes and heart disease. Taking another, the Internet gave us long-distance, instantaneous communications, but also (in ascending order of awfulness) cute cat videos, email spam, online trolls, cyberstalking, and manipulated elections. Are these just unanticipated consequences, or could they have been mitigated or managed in some way?

As a species, we need to find ways to think through the future of innovation without having to fix a problem that the future as thrust upon us. Sadly, I do not have an answer, but perhaps a way to talk about it.

As we look at the rise of monopolies and oligopolies in technology — in search, online buying stuff, social media — what we see are innovations that were originally innovative. But over time their adoption and business growth tends to crowd out the next generation of innovations. Granted, there are always potential disruptive innovators who come at the problem from a radically different angle (Thank you, Clayton Christensen), but quite often they are adopted, bought out, or destroyed by the existing paradigm. Here’s a thought experiment: When was the last time you produced a business document that you wrote using word processing software not created by a multi-billion-dollar tech firm? I use Microsoft Word — an application that was first created in 1981. (Does anyone remember WordStar?)

We have let technology companies grow to become monopolies partly because they are beneficial, like Amazon, and partly because they are predatory, like Amazon. Let us not just accept these realities without asking ourselves if these business concentrations have costs to society, justice, and even freedom. Amazon may offer incredible ease and convenience (Our neighbors thought we ran an online business because of all the delivery trucks that came to our house in the run-up to Christmas — they were all Amazon orders. Yes, we have a problem.), but the company also pushes their workers hard to keep the line moving, sometimes to the detriment of comfort and even safety. Jeff Bezos may be the richest man in the world, but his wealth depends on a lot of other people, and he does not share very well. (He needs to read the wisdom of Robert Fulghum — he may be able to find it on Amazon.)

There’s a remedy for monopoly power, it’s based in a 19th Century law, the Sherman Antitrust Act. It’s been used to break up companies from Standard Oil to AT&T. The problem with it is that it’s used after the fact. After the damage to competition and the free market have been done. Granted, no one knew that John D. Rockefeller was going to become a monopolist when he started Standard Oil in 1870, but by 1880 the New York World observed that it was “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless, and grasping monopoly that ever fastened upon a country.” (Wikipedia) It remained so until 1911, when it was broken up. So, legally, we are running behind the curve. At least until now, maybe.

One of the more recent and profoundly powerful innovations, CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology offers a rapid and relatively easy method to change our genes — genetic engineering in other words. Is this a good innovation? Or a harbinger of a dystopian future? It could be used to address the genes that cause sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscular dystrophy, forever. Not only the recipient of the gene therapy may be spared these maladies, but their children and children’s children. It sounds great. But there are both costs and risks.

Editing genes is still experimental, meaning very expensive even now and not assured of success. There’s still much we do not know. Its expense puts it in the class of luxury goods, only available to those with the money to pay for the procedure. Moreover, so far, it’s not legal. That’s actually where it becomes interesting for the future of the procedure, but also for the future of innovation.

The newness of this innovation buys us some time to consider the costs and benefits of the approach. Granted, a Chinese researcher claimed to use the technique to provide immunity to HIV in 2018, but he was sentenced to prison for doing so. The rest of society still has time to take a breath and consider the ramifications of genetic engineering. If we proceed, there are methods for research that allow us to test safety and efficacy before broad application. We also have time to wrestle with the thornier issues of the ethics of such manipulation and the implications of its cost. Yet, this is a biotechnology issue before it becomes a monopoly issue.

What can we do to address the problems of the next tech innovation that breeds a new generation of monopoly? Perhaps start building in some safeguards in patents to allow a pause in implementation before widespread application and growth. Subject such patent applications to a societal impact assessment like environmental impact studies before we make irreversible changes. Yes, it will slow down the pace of innovation, but what if we had such a consideration before the Internet was loosed on the world? It had no security layer and was wide open to hacks that compromise systems. Would we be better off if there had been a short pause to reflect on the future? If we brought in a technology Devil’s Advocate?

There’s no perfect answer, but the answers we have been getting in the last generation or so don’t look so good where we stand now and as we turn our gaze forward.

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David Potenziani

Historian, informatician, novelist, and grandfather. Part-time curmugdeon.