People spend a lot of time crowing about the impending doom or utopia that new technologies will create: AI will destroy people’s jobs, solar panels will replace fossil fuels, a new vaccine etc. But they are all of them deceived, for in the darkness, another effect was made: the hard-to-predict second order effects of technologies are where their real impacts come in.
It’s easy to forget, but until a few decades ago, overpopulation was a dire existential threat to humanity. Well-respected experts like Paul Erlich warned that without drastic measures, increasing populations would overwhelm the world’s ability to create food and the subsequent migrations and unrest would create a domino effect that would bring down civilization. Clearly that never happened. The eight billionth person was born recently with barely a note.::this sentence needs help::. Many studies now predict that human population will reach a maximum within a century. What created this drastic change?
It wasn’t money poured into policies to reduce birthrates. Nor was it research into technologies that would directly address the population problem, like better sterilization tools. It was the Haber—Bosch Process and new genetic engineering technologies that drastically increasing food production combined with many other technologies that increased GDP, one of the most consistent correlates with fertility rates.
Many cities were once covered in dark ash and dust from the coal that people used to heat their homes and power factories. ::add a flavor quote here:: We nearly hunted whales into extinction in order to light our homes. Like overpopulation, both of these were solved not because of save the whales campaigns or research into soot-removal technology. Instead, the twin developments of electricity and petroleum mining made coal and whale oil irrelevant for heating and light.
Overpopulation, soot-blackened cities, and whales are but a few examples of hard-to-predict economic and societal second-order effects of creating new technologies. When it was invented, The Laser was mocked for its uselessness but is now responsible for saving many lives and may change how warfare is conducted. Steam engines were invented to draw water out of a well, but were a critical part of the industrial revolution and restructured societies around railroads. Solar Panels were created to provide power to spacecraft. Now they offer part of a solution to global warming. The pitch for ARPAnet was that it would enable the military to maintain communication in the event of nuclear war. It has restructured economies and is arguably responsible for the social dynamics we have today.
We’re all familiar with how “useless” scientific discoveries and “toy” technologies can go on to be big deals. Quantum mechanics have had a shocking effect on culture. Studying tree frogs in the amazon leads to a powerful cancer treatment. Era-defining technologies from cars to the internet were dismissed as toys. See:flexnerUsefulnessUselessKnoweldge1939
The point is not that we’re bad at predicting what will be useful (although we are — Most predictions suck). It’s weirder than that:
Second order effects dominate the impact of technology. That is, throughout history, technologies have had the largest impacts on society not by directly solving problems but by obliquely making them no longer even a thing. ::this needs to be phrased better:: Technologies are often used far beyond the use-case that people imagined for them, those expanded uses then cause a cascade of changes that unseat built-in assumptions about how the world works.
An impact-via-second-order effects model of technology flies in the face of most government and philanthropic programs. Researchers and managers need to justify their funding based on direct applicability to problems du-jour. ::needs more work::