Monday, February 2, 2015

World Class Floundering

Have you considered the meaning of the word technology?  After all, we live in “the technological age,” or so I’m told.  So what is technology?

Many years ago, a great many, I was working for a state planning agency as a very young community development type person.  The agency got a grant for a lot of money to engage in some kind of planning involving the application of technology to economic development.  I had one inappropriate suggestion, and one inappropriate question.  The suggestion was that we could incorporate the required work plan into our existing work plan and staff.  What a silly idea that was.  The grant included funds for a director, assistant director, and a couple of staffers.  Of course the fiefdom would be enlarged.  Anything else would have been crazy.  

The question was, “What is technology?”  I got long meandering, nearly incoherent, rambling non answers from my seniors, and rolling eyeball smirks from my colleagues.  Really, what is technology?  Everybody knows what technology is!  What a dumb question!  Don’t ask it again!

That was sometime in the late 1960s.  I still haven’t heard a good answer.  

These days I think we speak of technology as if it included only things electronic, especially things that are related to computers, tablets, and smart phones.  But my neanderthal brain believes that technology is the application of any sort of tool that helps a human being modify something, anything, so that the thing will be useful, or more useful, in the doing of some activity.  If that’s true, we have never not lived in the technological age.

With that thought in mind, I go back to that old state planning agency grant and wonder if it would have been helpful to use the money to examine local economic impacts of technological applications over, say, the last century, asking questions such as: Who benefitted and who was hurt by them?; Who opposed them and why?; Who favored them and why?  How long did it take to recoup initial investments in them?; What cultural changes resulted?; What was anticipated accurately and what inaccurately?  That might have been followed up with examining short term emerging technologies on the horizon, and asking the same questions about them.  

I say short term because I don’t think we are very good at guessing about the long term.  Who, in 1968, would have guessed about laptops, smart phones, and tablets?  The short term is what we are good at.  At the same time we can open our minds to the expectation that “the future” will come with technological changes we were not able to predict.  We can, however, predict that the unknown changes will come, and we can predict something about the dynamics of the social changes they will bring with them.

We can prepare by asking questions like the ones above.  They are not about technology per se, but about people, cultures, and historical dynamics.  We can even make guesses about general areas in which technological change might occur.  What’s in surplus, what’s in short supply, where do things itch, and what would be fun or interesting?  That old state planning agency might have done something like that, but it didn’t.  In fact, I don’t think it did anything worth remembering.  But why pick on a nearly fifty year old incident.  We could be preparing for our own near term future now.  It looks like some people have.  We might not know what a new technology will be, but we do know that some will be helped, and some hurt.  Maybe we could be better at understanding the dynamics of help and hurt.  In fact, we might pay more attention to understanding the full range of technological impact on social change.  What is it that evokes strong, gut level, opposition?  What is it that evokes unreflective enthusiasm?  How can we better tolerate the impact of early financial losses?  Can the stress of cultural change be a positive force?  We can ask those kinds of questions, and, perhaps, not be caught so flat footed in the future.  I don’t think we will do it.  That kind of community thinking requires too much hard work, and it always punches holes in whatever we think is right and good.


Oh well.  Why should we be different from any other generation.  Floundering is what we do best, and maybe that’s the way it should be.  I just wish that we would be more honest about what we are: world class, very smart, flounderers, who have not yet destroyed the world we hope to improve.   

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