Digital Myth: You Can’t Stop New Technology

Digital Myths: #2 You Can’t Stop New Technology. Business interests masquerading as technological inevitabilities

The popular idea that technology has a life of its own, outside the influence of man, often dominates the conversation about digital networks. We must adjust are rules and lives to the development, which in itself is outside our influence. We cannot control it, only adapt. This view is clearly expressed by the phrase “You can’t stop new technology”, often floated in debates about existing market structures (telecom, finance, copyright, transport, advertising etc), suggesting that rules must be changed in order to let some current tech application succeed.

Except technology is made by us. The research, invention, defining of standards, development funding, prototyping, testing, documenting, improving, patenting, dissemination and application of technology are all human endeavours. The same technology can be applied in different ways: gun powder can be used for bombs or fireworks; nuclear fission for bombs or electric power. Portable music players in the 1980s took very different forms depending on cultural context. Think about the Japanese Walkman versus the American ghetto blaster: both are cassette players with batteries so you can carry your music with you, but the former uses headphones so the music is a private experience, perhaps making a personal space in a crowded place. The latter is built to be as loud as possible, in order to impress one’s musical taste on everybody within earshot. Same technology, very different execution, and of course it’s hard to resist the temptation of drawing a parallel to the stereotypes of Japanese and American culture: one modest and soft-spoken, the other loud and imposing.

Technology is the result of human enterprise, the consequence of government funding decisions, competing business interests, academic research, various standards, individual initiative and hundreds of other factors. Sometimes technology can bring unexpected opportunities, but it is always for us to decide how we take advantage of them. The idea that there is one single and inevitable way for technology to manifest is simply preposterous.

Consider the case of the Internet: it started in US military research labs in the 1960s, the first version called ARPANET. The government, not the market or technology itself, made the Internet happen. In the 1970s, universities caught on – first in North America, then in Europe – and used it for more peaceful purposes. Still no market involvement. In the 1980s, the telecoms sector got involved and started developing products and services for the business and government markets. Commercial logic started appearing, but bear in mind that these players in many cases were state monopolies at that time. In the early 1990s, the Web became accessible to the public, but the concept of the World Wide Web was developed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, government funded). It is only in the last two decades that the Internet has been the subject of anything similar to market economy, but there is still a significant proportion of government involvement in terms of infrastructure ownership, research funding and of course regulation.

Even with commercialism, technology is in no way independent, but rather the instrument of business interests

Even with commercialism, technology is in no way independent, but rather the instrument of business interests (as opposed to government). In the celebrated ‘innovative’ start-up environment that is Silicon Valley, the story is that visionary and resourceful entrepreneurs are bankrolled by angel investors and venture capitalists, but in practice most of the dollars come from the coffers of a small circle of funds, companies and individuals, and once the young businesses are big enough they are usually acquired by the likes of Cisco, Google or Amazon (whose venture capital divisions are often among the early investors). Any tech investor will tell you, the expertise they bring is just as valuable as the money. That keeps technology in the control of very particular business interests, much more than allowing it to develop freely and serve whatever greater purpose the hype talks about.

Perhaps the evolution of technology is better understood as the result of many competing forces. Entertainment businesses hide parts of the content on servers behind passwords, only to be hacked or see that content turns up on ghost servers. A game developer I know expressed his frustration that even their free-to-play games are pirated. That’s right, even the free business model, itself a consequence of the difficulties of charging for content online, is the victim of piracy, because in the pirate versions the in-game purchase offers through which the game developer makes its money are disabled and all the content is available for free. It is an ever-changing tug of war, sometimes driving innovation, sometimes putting companies out of business. But it’s driven by people, their wills, motivations and decisions.

You can’t use the phrase ‘You can’t stop new technology’ as a way to paint any particular picture of some specific technology as inevitable. It’s a myth!

 

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.

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