Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reverse adaptation and technological innovation

Human needs are conditioned to accommodate technology, not the other way around.  This is one of the most counterintuitive aspects of our situation.Technology extends human capacities, and by all rights should therefore facilitate the achievement of human purposes. And this in fact may be how things work with simple technologies—tools whose design and operation are entirely transparent. But with the complex and opaque technologies of post-industrial mass society, the tables are turned, and our purposeful activity is shaped to fit the requirements of our technology.  

Technology structures our lives in ways that accommodate its own operative requirements. Langdon Winner called this reverse adaptation. Technologies start out serving specific human ends or addressing a highly circumscribed set of problems. But once they come into being, they shape human thought and activity in ways that conform to the structure and organization of the technology itself. The technological solution becomes a way of reframing the original problem, and features of the original problem that do not correspond to the technological solution are ignored or redefined. 

Reverse adaptation has a ratcheting effect, and leads to a sense irreversibility. The original purpose, once altered to accommodate the technology, becomes something different. We can’t go back to simpler times in the past because the operative purposes of those times no longer exist. Technology has rendered them inert or irrelevant. This extends to far more than just the fact that the adoption of the automobile means that we no longer need blacksmiths and livery stables. Entire domains of potential meaning and purpose fall by the wayside and are replaced. 

The ratcheting effect of reverse adaptation creates an illusion of progress. Our present-day needs and purposes are fitted snuggly to the operation of present-day technology. Surely the fit is better now than it was with the inferior technology of the past. But, of course, the needs and purposes of the past were somewhat different, and aligned just as closely with the operation of the technology of the time.

Take communication technology as an example. Modern communication technology provides us with instantaneous and continuous contact with anyone we choose, regardless of who they are or where they happen to be. As a result, many people of today’s cellular generation don’t give a second thought about the propriety of sending a casual acquaintance a poorly crafted text message about the most inane thought or minor detail of their momentary experience. The content of a message to a distant friend is likely to be considerably different when the only mode of contact is through a currier-delivered letter, perhaps taking weeks to arrive. And the motivation for communication is considerably different as well.  The popularity of text messaging and internet sites like Twitter suggests that our ability to communicate instantaneously is generating a perceived need for instantaneous communication of trivial information—and this blog post is already far too long and involved for anyone whose attention span has become reverse adapted to accommodate the punctate superficiality of the Twitterverse.

The larger social and political institutions of technological society are subject to reverse adaptation as well.  What this means is that the ends that these systems were originally designed to facilitate become transient motives that fall into obscurity as new technology forces their realignment. The ends themselves, because they are constantly in flux, constantly being altered by the presence of new technological means, cease to be a focus at all. "What" and "why" take a back seat to "how." What we are doing and, more importantly why we are doing it become irrelevant, completely overshadowed by the operation of the technology itself. All that matters is whether a new technology performs its designed function, or whether it performs its function faster, more efficiently, or with higher precision than a previous version. What the technology actually does—the ultimate purposes to which it is being directed and the ways in which the whole of society is being affected by pursuing these purposes—is rarely if ever considered. 

As a result of the narrow focus on the "how" of technology, reverse adaptation (along with function drift) can lead to a variety of unintended consequences. In discussing the unintended consequences of technology, Winner points out two interesting features: first they are invariably negative. Positive unintended consequences are taken in stride as expected. That a technological innovation should turn out to provide additional unforeseen advantages is included as part of the motivation for innovation in the first place. The second interesting feature of unintended consequences is that they are not not intended. That is, there is nothing in the original planning, development, or application of the technology in the way of intentionally preventing them. Technologies are born into the world with little or no intentional forethought directed at potential unexpected consequences. It is in fact impossible to imagine specific consequences if they are unexpected.

So, technological innovation involves intentionally creating new technology that is virtually guaranteed to have negative consequences, the specific form and scope of which we have no way to judge beforehand. 

What could possibly go wrong?

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