The Roots of Progress

Technology and its side effects

Progress is messy. On the whole, over the long run, the advance of technology and industry has improved life along almost every dimension. But when you zoom in to look at each step, you find that progress is full of complications.

Some examples:

Nor can we, in every instance, fall back on “revealed preferences” to argue that people actually want the new thing, since they chose it: sometimes industrial shifts take away old options, as when weavers could not compete against the power loom; or technology runs ahead of governance, as when coal began to pollute common skies.

So technological changes can be an improvement along some dimensions while hurting others. To evaluate a technology, then, we must evaluate its overall effect, both the costs and the benefits, and compare it to the alternatives. (One reason it’s important to know history is that the best alternative to any technology, at the time it was introduced, is typically the thing it replaced: cars vs. horses, transistors vs. vacuum tubes.) We must also evaluate not only the immediate effects, but the long-term situation, after people have had a chance to adjust to the new technology and its ramifications: mitigating its downsides, working out governance issues.

Conversely, a common error consists of pointing to problems caused by a technology and concluding from that alone that the technology is harmful—without asking: What did we gain? Was the tradeoff worth it? And can we solve the new problems that have been created?

This is well-understood in some domains, such as medicine. Chemotherapy can treat cancer, but it can also give you nausea. The unpleasant side effects are acceptable given the life-saving benefits of the treatment. And there are ways to mitigate the side effects, such as anti-nausea medication. Nausea might be a reason to avoid chemotherapy in a specific case (especially since there are alternative cancer treatments), but it’s not a good argument against chemotherapy in general, which is a valuable technique in the doctor’s arsenal. Nor is it a sufficient argument even in a specific case, without evaluating the alternatives.

Other domains don’t always receive the same rigorous logic. The argument “pesticides aren’t necessary—they’re just a response to the problems caused by monocropping!” is analogous to “anti-nausea pills aren’t necessary—they’re just a response to the problems caused by chemotherapy!” Perhaps—but what problem is being solved, and what are the alternatives? There are alternatives to monocropping, just as there are to chemotherapy—but just because alternatives exist doesn’t mean they are viable in every (or any) situation. A case must be made in the full context. (Understanding the context is part of industrial literacy.)

That’s not to say that we can’t identify the drawbacks of pesticides, or monocropping, or chemotherapy, or coal, or factories. We can and should, and we should seek better solutions. No technology is sacred. Indeed, progress consists of obsoleting itself, of continually moving on to improved techniques.

But if you want to criticize a technology, show that there is a viable alternative, and that it doesn’t sacrifice important properties such as cost, speed, productivity, scalability, or reliability; or that if it loses on some dimensions, it makes up for it on others.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

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