Technological change has the profound ability to enable radical social change. From the industrialisation at the end of the 19th Century leading to the High School Movement and greater human capital investment, to the advent of the birth control pill enabling the women’s rights movement, technology has played a profound role in shaping modern society. When these new transformative technologies were introduced at scale, the effects they had on society were difficult to predict, and in no way related to the intentions of the engineers and entrepreneurs who made them.
There are those who look at the past, and the role technology has played in shaping it, and believe that it is technology alone that has shaped our world. The growth of sprawling cities, globalisation, the decline of physical labour in production, have all been targeted by populists as ills of the modern world. Technological determinists believe that all of these are inevitabilities of scientific advance and the institutional processes of capitalism. They find that political rebellion against it is futile at best, and counterproductive at worst .
It is undeniable that much of the technologically enabled social change has been beneficial. Access to information has increased, allowing for people to be more educated than ever before. Faster transportation and bigger cities allow for people to maintain larger social networks, lowering their risk of poverty, while increasing their opportunity for entrepreneurialism. Medical technologies have allowed people to extend their lives, allowing for increased risk taking, and greater individual freedom. All this is undeniable, though to claim that technological change has been entirely beneficial is unlikely to be the case.
President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of a “scientific-technological elite” that threatened the health of democratic societies. Much of the social malaise that currently exists, among declining post-industrial or rural communities, and among those who have received these benefits at the cost of their traditional ways of life, has gone unaddressed precisely due to this closing of the debate. The more deterministic a society becomes about the implications of technology, and the more it relies on expert prediction, the less of a voice those who have been negatively affected have in society about what to do next.
The trade-off need not be technological advance, with the social upheaval that it may entail, against a populist luddism, though these seem to be the more common lines being drawn today. Instead our perspective on technosocial process needs a shift to being less deterministic, and more democratic. The ways technologies shaped society since the Industrial Revolution can be seen not so much as inevitabilities, but rather a result of our collective somnambulism. Our society has been shaped by technology not because we have no power, but because little attention has been paid by activists and academics on the relationship between technology and social change.
To enable a freer and more democratic discourse around technology, the Institute for Advancing Prosperity aims to engage all stakeholders of the future. Our experts in computer science, engineering, economics, sociology, and philosophy, seek to explain the interdisciplinary nature of technosocial change in a way that is accessible to the public, rather than a few gatekeepers. We engage students in K-12 and in University to encourage them to see the social implications of science and technology, in order to improve their critical thinking and concern for their work. We advocate for policies that enable innovation, while also ensuring that the fruits of that innovation are shared by all. And most importantly, we engage with the public and thinkers from outside our disciplines to ensure that our understanding is holistic and ethically oriented.
We can either shape our advanced technological future, or be shaped by it. The Institute for Advancing Prosperity is committed to the former.