The Law of Amplification

How does technology impact society? That is begging the question. Phrasing the question like that already assumes techno-determinism: that technology happens and impacts society. Technology as a force unto itself, independent of human involvement. Therefore, it’s an impossible question. Technology comes from human effort. Necessity is the mother of invention. A solution to a problem, a means to an end. After, the invention can be put to use in other ways, but that is also a consequence of human design. Technology can be made in many different ways, it can be used for good and bad. Gunpowder can be used for bombs or fireworks, war or entertainment. Technology is never without ideology, but often a product of it. The space race was a product of the Cold War, the superpowers competing over whose ideology was superior. Netopia is in a way a project to uncover techno-determinism and argue against it.

Except Netopia is also a product of technological determinism. It’s called “Forum for the digital society”, after all. Its name assumes that technology impacts society. And of course technology does impact society. The telephone, electricity, flight, the combustion engine and numerous other inventions define our society, what we can and can’t do. It sets the limits and opportunities for what we can accomplish. Without technology, humans would struggle to survive. Technology is only deterministic in retrospect, we can see how one thing lead to another. Going forward, it can take many different directions, impossible to predict – whatever some pundits say about things like Moore’s Law and exponential growth.

Which is it? Does technology impact society? Or not? Can we imagine society without technology? (What is technology anyway – that definition is material for a different blog post). Seven years into Netopia, I am struggling with this question. Behind all the blogposts, newsletters, book reviews, thoughts, ideas and opinions, is this – more profound – question. It’s true and not true at the same time.

Now I have found a way forward. Professor Kentaro Toyama suggests what he calls the “law of amplification”. He makes the case in his book Geek Heresy ­– Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (reviewed for Netopia by Waldemar Ingdahl when it was first released in 2015). Professor Toyama says technology can’t change society, but it can amplify the change that humans bring. Put laptops in a classroom and they’re great learning tools if there is a good teacher and motivated students, but without that all the laptops in the world won’t do much to help those students learn.

The law of amplification points to a way forward, out of the riddle of whether technology impacts society or the other way around. It’s simple and therefore beautiful. Now that you’ve read this post, please listen to my podcast interview with professor Toyama, where talk about the law of amplification and how it corresponds to the alt.right, the Arab Spring and Sesame Street.