My latest article, Technology’s False Hope, is up at SHIFT magazine as part of its seventh edition. Check out the whole magazine! And if you like what you read, or prefer to read hard copy, please get this issue as a digital download (beautiful magazine layout) or sign up for an annual subscription (6 issues).
Here’s the beginning of the article:
Only a decade ago, I was part of the Strategy and Innovation Core Team for a huge multinational consultancy, and writing exuberantly on my (then-new) blog about innovation and technology and how they could possibly save the world. The image above, from the Credit Suisse First Boston New Economy Forum Synthesis, describes a universal “technology development process” popular at the time. One of the leading business speakers in those heady days was Chris Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, whom I more or less idolized.
And then something happened. My own research into the history of innovation and technology suggested that, rather than being the result of rigorous process, excellence and inventiveness, most enduring technologies of any value seemed to be the result of fortuitous accidents, or were the throw-away byproducts of massive, outrageously expensive military programs. Complexity science was by then throwing serious doubt on a lot of accepted theories about how change actually happens in organizations and societies. Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress, and similar works by Jared Diamond and others, argued that ‘progress’ was an illusion, and that all civilizations inevitably collapse (taking the capacity to support their technologies with them).
We actually likely lived healthier, happier (and often longer, when we weren’t eaten by predators) lives in prehistoric times, it seems, way back before the inventions – or more accurately discoveries – of the first great technologies (the arrowhead, fire, the wheel, and then abstract language and later, agriculture – which Richard Manning, in Against the Grain, says should more accurately be called “catastrophic agriculture”), enabling the unnatural human evolution we call “settlement”. Settlement brought with it a blizzard of new problems for technology to solve (most notably infectious and emotional diseases), and each well-intentioned new technology has produced yet more problems, arguably greater in number, size and intractability than the benefits the earlier technology provided…