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The Crises of Technology Progress

Thursday, 12 Jan 2017


500 years of expanding our ‘selves’ has come to this. 

We’ve often heard from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull some variation of the present being “the most exciting time in human history”, where “the pace and velocity of change and the opportunities so presented are literally without precedent.”

This is, of course, not quite true.

“For 500 years we’ve had revolutions that were driven by technology,” science fiction author and futurist David Brin told IBM’s World of Watson conference.

“Each generation has had these expansions of what you can see, what you can know, what you can pay attention to, what you can reach.”

Glass lens’ were an expansion of what humans could see, Brin said. Movable type was an expansion of what people could know and remember.

“All of a sudden you had ‘external prosthetics’ outside your skull where you could store lots and lots of memory,” he said. Later, we would see the advent of photography and cinema, of global connectivity, mass media and immersive technology.

Two things happened each time there was progress.

Firstly, the world was divided into groups of people that were either optimistic or pessimistic of the technology’s potential.

“Every single time grouches said human beings weren’t made by God or evolution to be able to drink from this firehose,” said Brin.

“The normal people are not going to be able to handle this, we need elites to intermediate because they’ll go crazy.

“And always there were transcendentalists and optimists who said this is going to make everybody better. It’s going to expand their notion of who’s out there; we’re going to be including more types of people.

“And always in the short term it was the grouches who were right. The printing press did not expand empathy at first, but over time books spread, and people expanded their notion of inclusion and who they were.”

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