The pros and cons of technological innovations

With all the doom and gloom messages about cybercrime, stolen identity, security breaches, e-spying, surveillance marketing, the list goes on, many people ask themselves is it all worth it?

That is a very legitimate question indeed, but the answer will be yes. A better question would be how can we better manage these developments?

Humanity has seen many challenges in its 100,000 years of existence and technological advance has been at the heart of nearly all of the major developments since our arrival – stone tools, bronze, iron, agriculture, industrialisation and now digitalisation. Innovation is inherently human and no matter what we do it will be unstoppable.

True, there are many risks, since our innovations have produced weaponry, plus the misuse, crime and other damaging effects that were inevitably associated with many of the new developments. And there have been serious setbacks, with the collapse of civilisations, the Black Death, Dark Ages, serious climate change events such as the Ice Age, and so on.

Yet overall we were able to make progress and in general create a better world for ourselves. Despite all the drama in the world there is now globally less poverty and less war than existed when the present generations were born. More people receive healthcare and education, some 80% of the global population apparently have enough money to have a mobile phone, and 90% have access to TV; and internet access is increasing rapidly.

When weaponry began to become more powerful tribes also started to learn the skills of diplomacy and negotiation. Agriculture saw the arrival of cities which produced an enormous increase in prosperity wherever these cities arrived – in particular in the Middle East, North Africa, South America and many places in Asia.

Technological innovations from the 17th century onwards lifted the prosperity of Europe and North America.

While society as a whole prospered, disasters happened, economies collapsed, war devastated other areas, ecological destruction occurred. But despite all of this the overall development remained positive.

We did invent the nuclear bomb, but we have been able to avoid using it now for more than 70 years. Can we achieve similar outcomes today, as we talk about drones, artificial intelligence (AI), mass surveillance and so on? Already some of the leading figures in our industry have think tanks working on this and governments also will have to start thinking about these issues rather than kneejerk interventions and trying to stop innovation. Within the current developments these kinds of processes are now being established; and humankind is getting better at it and will continue to do so.

On the positive side, we do need these new technologies and further innovation in our increasingly complex society. The world grew from 3 billion to 7 billion in just over 60 years and before most of us die there will be 9 billion people. If you just think about this for a moment it becomes very clear that we do need to change our global management systems. While the UN and its many agencies has done great work, its organisation and management has hardly changed; and the same applies to most other national and international political and government systems. Again, think about this and it becomes clear that changes at that level are now well and truly overdue.

Climate change, epidemics, refugees, the global economic and financial crisis; the scale of these issues means that they can no longer be managed in the way they have been over the last 50, 30, or even 20 years. However, in many instances we still seem to operate as if we lived in those times. There is no doubt that managing these complexities will require yet another quantum leap in technological development and data gathering and data analytics; and eventually more sophisticated forms of AI will be desperately needed.

Interestingly, current developments in cybercrime, e-spying and surveillance marketing are going to assist us here. Yes, of course it would be better if we had used technology to first develop more positive outcomes, but unfortunately that is not how things seem to work out. Positive innovations often follow the massive investments that are easily available for those not so positive developments. The military establishment, for example, has been a key driver in technological developments that ultimately delivered outcomes that are for the good of humanity.

In the end all of these are human driven developments and there is no reason to doubt that, on our quest for self-preservation, we humans remain in charge of developments. Often through muddling on, sometimes through sheer excellence, we will continue to be able to create that better place for all of us.

Having said this, yes, of course it would be much better if we could use our national and international political, economic and social systems to collaborate and cooperate in a more bipartisan way in addressing these critical issues. Such an approach might indeed mean the difference between sustainable and intelligent progress and another era like the Dark Ages.

Paul Budde

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