Technological Disruptions - My Gallatin Rationale
My Gallatin Thesis, live on the blogosphere. You’re welcome :)
Computer and information based technology is interwoven into virtually every capacity of our lives. Every every city we roam, every word we read, every tool we use, and every idea we dream up is made up of gears and street signs, of electricity and power, of brains and bodies. This phenomena is a result of our most recent technological revolution, the Information Age - a time defined by intangibles, services, and intelligence. I decided to use my colloquium to uncover what causes and defines Technological Disruptions like this one. I’ve delved into the philosophical, anthropological and economic roots of technology, and broken it down into four sub-sectors of research: technology, intelligence and creation, the information and digital age, and structures (both societal and literal) that help technological innovation thrive. I plan to use these books (which are tools in themselves!) to answer a few key questions, and to illustrate exactly how invention grows atop itself through tool-creation.
What is Technology?
Though the actual phrase “technology” was not used until the 20th century, humans have been discussing the meaning of tools, progress and craftsmanship for a long time. Its use began in Plato’s Republic with the greek word technê, which can be translated as either craft or art, depending on its use. Initially the term was used as an almost derogatory distinction between products of craft and works of the mind, whereas he referred to its sister concept epistime as “the indispensable basis for the philosophers’ craft of ruling in the city.” This contrast, which clearly separates our now intertwined notions about theory and practice is re-bridged by Aristotle, who believed that “every art is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being.” As a result, Aristotle’s Treatise Rhetoric compounded the term with Logos, which means word or speech or literacy. Techne-logos attempted to highlight the artfulness and interconnectedness of thought and craft, rather than their differences; “Since building is an art [techne] is essentially a reasoned productive state,” he notes, “it follows that art is the same as a productive state that is truly reasoned.”
Since then, technology has become our conceptual frame to measure progress and modernity. Its a great indicator of change because it’s both a means to a functional end and a distinctly interwoven part of human activity. Martin Heidegger explains in The Question Concerning Technology how technology points to something “essential about the constitution of our ontology”, and a place where ‘revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.” Like Plato and Aristotle, he focuses on the core “essence” of technology, rather than its mechanical physicality or human use. But unlike the ancient greeks, Heidegger seems to capture the massiveness - that technology is more than a craft of life, but a way of understanding the universe.
Technological Revolutions and Disruptions
Technology’s ability to decode the universe is reliant on its dynamic and explosive nature. This phenomena is known as a “Technological Revolution” - which Carlota Perez defines as “a powerful and highly visible cluster of new and dynamic technologies, products, and industries, capable of bringing about an upheaval in the whole fabric of the economy and of propelling a long-term upsurge of development” in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. Technological change tends to be nonlinear, she explains, but with mass adoption - and most importantly, with responsive inventions. The five most documented technological revolutions, for example, - the Industrial Revolution (1770–1830) Steam and Railroads (1830–1880), Steel (1880–1930), Oil and Electricity(1930–1980) and the Information Age (1980-present) - may have been driven by their titular technologies, but were known for the economic and intellectual renaissances that occurred in their wake. Perez notes that the interrelated generic technologies and organizational principles that define a revolution; this is even visible in the invention of the bike, which led to the ideas for more intricate gears, ideal bike-wear, and cushy seats.
At the core of these revolutions, though, are the tools that make the metaphorical gears move - the disruptive technologies. The most world-changing inventions - the wheel, the car, the computer - tend to share tool-like abilities. The most powerful thing a human can do is to create a tool that others can use; one good tool can help another person (or a hundred people, or a thousand) pick up a skill, trade, or way of life with greater ease. One great tool can impact the lives of all humans. And one great tool can drive and influence more tools, and essentially drive human progress.
The technological disruptions of the Information Age are especially ripe for progress because unlike physically manufactured tools, digital tools are seamlessly usable, and therefore can quickly become building blocks in the inventions of others. They are also unique because the leading tools are platforms and/or mediums, which, according to Marshall MacLuhan in Understanding Media, defines a tool’s role not by the content delivered through it, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. Previous inventions like the lightbulb needed ideas and information in order to be invented, but not used; Computers, on the other hand, are not only engineered based on immaterial flows of ideas and information, but are used to spread it. When a person creates a tool that others can use, it opens up the creative doors for thousands more, who can drive and influence more tools, and can further human progress. “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,” McLuhan explains.
How are these Disruptions Connected to Each Other?
Historically, the key indicators of change in history of technological progress are not identified by on the abundance of new technologies, but by an interactive exchange that leads to system-wide innovation. After all, Human tools are hardly a disconnected collection of random inventions; to the contrary, the best ideas rely on previous inventions to exist. This is especially true in the modern world - our inventions encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. This loop is identified as the Technium by Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants. “All decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines,” he explains.
This process of innovation within modern technology crucial both for current use and for future innovation. In fact, many modern academics have come to the conclusion that cross-pollination and mutual influence are not only inherent in the processes of technological innovations, but cause them. In Where Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson studied many of these technologically fertile environments, and noticed a series of shared properties and patterns - essentially innovation systems. “Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible,” he explains. For example - without numerical tools like the periodic table, calculus, even double entry accounting, we would be without experimentational standards - and would therefore have trouble deciphering a real discovery from a phony one. Or without physical tools like the wheel, printing press, and the telegraph, we would not be as efficient in transferring ideas from one human to another. And without energy tools like the motor, the battery, and the lightbulb, we wouldn’t be able to bring new ideas to life. “We are, each of us, surrounded by the conceptual equivalent of those Toyota spare parts, all waiting to be recombined into something magical, something new,” he explains.
Interconnectedness and Progress
As of today, its still not plausible to completely predict the direction of technological invention. It’s not achieved through mimicry, giant corporations, or established institutions. What we can, and always have been able to gage (or at least Machiavelli could in The Prince), is that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Progress at large may be unpredictable - but leadership, in thought and in action, is responsible for the critical advances our world has taken technologically. And in an age where leadership is public, influence and collective intelligence can at least offer tools. He summarizes it best; “The best and brightest inventors tend to ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”
Business is an incredibly powerful driving force for the funding, research and execution of current technologies. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen explains that real technological innovations are notable for their implementation, not the technology itself. To illustrate - the app store is the revolution, but the iphone is the disruption. “Few technologies are intrinsically disruptive or sustaining in character,” he notes; rather, its often the business model that has the largest impact on society. That said, technology has become so ubiquitous in daily life that it’s also infiltrating our free time. In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky illustrates how people are using internet tools to learn and collaborate philanthropically. They are motivated by connectedness, sharing, generosity, and a desire to approach a newer, brighter future - and because the barriers of participation are so low, anyone can join in. These integrated and participant friendly shifts have allowed for heightened and increasingly focused progress - and will only speed towards collectively sourced, cohesive toolkit at a faster and faster rate.