The Blessings and the Curses of Breakthrough Technologies

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in early January, 2023.


There’s no doubt in my mind that the new technologies of communication have been a great blessing in my life. But I also recognize that these technologies – like the Internet and social media – have also created some major problems in the larger social environment.

In this, these new technologies should be recognized as recapitulating a pattern that has played out repeatedly in the history of civilization.

Taking these points in order:

One consequence of these technologies for which I’m grateful is that they make it so much easier for me to engage my mind and spirit with good things other people have produced.

  • Immediate access to interesting information and ideas on any subject, with a search engine that miraculously culls through nearly infinite material to pull out what fills the bill. (No need to organize a trip to the library.)
  • Music – almost any song at any time – readily available.
  • A phone that understands questions posed by voice and often provides good answers. 
  • A DVR, that stores 100 hours of video that one can use as a library, making a movie something you can watch in sittings as you would read a book.
  • Football games that one can see on TV with a clarity that makes it so much more alive than the black-and-white televisions of my boyhood.

All of those represent improvements in my life as a consumer. But the advantages for me as a “producer” have been equally impactful.

My calling has been an effort to figure out things that are true and important, and not widely known; to learn how to communicate them effectively; and to get those thoughts out into the world.

Some of that has been pursued through the improvisation of conversation—like using the not-so-new technology of radio. And more recently using the newer technologies to do podcast conversations.

But mostly I do it in writing, the craft I’ve worked hardest to develop.

Writing is an old craft, but the new technologies given the writer a huge boost with new tools. One can focus more on the pursuit of truth and the creative process when the technology removes the need to retype every draft completely to get a fresh draft.

And compared with when I first tried to get my work published – getting paper to the publisher through the mail, to the age when there was at least FAX eventually, and then the ability to attach a document and have it arrive in seconds – the present is almost like a miracle.

But at the same time, we’re being compelled to confront how these technologies have also had their downsides: like enabling untrustworthy people to spread misinformation, facilitating the formation of destructive communities, and rewarding algorithms that maximize corporate profits by feeding anger and division among people.

This mixture of blessings and curses is part of a long historical pattern:

Every technological innovation that is impactful enough to change the overall situation in consequential ways is bound to have benefits (corresponding to why the innovators made their innovations) while also creating problems.

Such technologies change some of the rules of the game. And when the situation is new, it is like people moving into unclaimed territory, where there is no governing structure regulating what will happen. (And there will always be forces ready to take advantage of such anarchy.)

First comes the breakthrough, then comes the attempt by culture to catch up with the ramifications of a revolutionary technology.

In my own lifetime, one could see that struggle with respect to humankind’s entry into the nuclear age. Wars had been ongoing for millennia, but now war between the biggest powers had become unthinkable. Nuclear superpowers needed to develop means of avoiding conflicts that – before Mutual Assured Destruction arose — would have erupted. The “superpowers” developed new concepts of “stable deterrence” to minimize the chance that any such war would ever start.

Similarly, the invention of the printing press – enabling new ideas to be disseminated with much greater breadth and speed – had major unforeseen consequences, including the facilitating break-up of European religion into forces of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, with all the religious wars that entailed.

Likewise with the invention and spread of gunpowder technology, changing as it did the balance of power between offensive and defensive military forces.

Indeed, perhaps the most consequential instance of technological change bringing a mixture of blessings and curses was the domestication of plants and animals, which led inexorably to the whole new phase of Life-on-Earth called “Civilization.”

Blessings and curses:

  • The civilized creature gets to dominate the planet, with more and more of the earth serving human needs and desires.
  • But at the same time, the unprecedented circumstances ensuing from civilization has confronted the creature that made that breakthrough with a continuous problem of anarchy and the war of all against all, and with problems from the unsustainable ways of civilization, like destabilizing the earth’s climate.

So, we should not be surprised that these new technologies – the Internet and all that has come along with it – present us with a new version of an ancient challenge: how to allow its blessings while creating an order that prevents its potential destructive consequences.

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