Technologies and Progress

As Brad Smith invited us to think - any technology can be a tool or a weapon. Which one we make it is our choice.
Often, though, technologies start as weapons before becoming a tool. This is not because all the technologies we have so far are inherently warlike, but because of the money. The powerful can fund the workshop and pay the craftsmen to produce what will give them more power. That many technologies, starting as weapons, become a tool later prove a good thing about ourselves: That our ingenuity is often peaceable and we turn weapons into tools when we can.

Here is a narrative, therefore: The crafty genius in his workshop, funded by and for the Prince, creates technologies of war, and it remains as such until another crafty genius comes up with its antidote. Thereafter, bereft of strategic value, the technologies are deployed in peaceable purposes. There is a lovely, benign, story of progress.

Of course, it's too neat and in real life, it's not sequential at all. Take a recent example: GPS! We know the story of its invention: Starting as a hobby project of stalking the Sputnik, it morphed into the geo-location system for the benefit of US Nuclear submarines and then, the everyday network that we use every day, on our mobiles, cars, everywhere. That is a story of progress, a great global leap enabled by a benevolent President Reagan. But that will indeed be too simplistic a reading. Reagan's opening of GPS meant that the US system became the global standard to be used by everyone, and indeed, no alternatives could be commercially developed elsewhere. This essentially means a sort of indirect military power, the ability to switch off the GPS of any other smaller power if they are about to do something without approval and the ability to control the non-state actors if they go near a mobile device. 

This alternative reading of the story of tools and weapons may be truer than the spin we receive: Technologies of overt control often becomes technologies of covert control and what we think of progress may alternatively look like surrender. The Chinese copying technologies are universally berated as bad faith but may be equally spun as that of resistance, worthy of Star Wars heroes. In this reading, technologies are usually tools and weapons, all at the same time. It's not a choice, often it's a trap.

The broad point, though, is this: That we shouldn't go looking for progress in technologies. As a species, we have indeed been ingenious and can do a lot more than we did even a few decades ago. But this is not just because we have newer, shinier, technologies; they often put us back as much as they show the way forward. We still progress because we resist, we question, we subvert: We look for human ends whenever given a chance. The user, rather than the craftsman, is the real harbinger of progress. It's our will to tinker and to play, rather than purposeful work done at the universities and the laboratories, that propels the human civilisation forward.



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