Here’s the normal product timeline for “game-changing” innovations:
1. Initial excitement about new discovery/invention and it’s potential to save lives/improve lives/save the environment, etc.
2. In order to attract investment for research and development, discovery/invention is hyped up and its benefits exaggerated: something that was developed to save lives will now also save the environment. Something that was developed to improve agriculture will now also empower women.
3. Increasing disenchantment that the discovery/invention hasn’t lived up to the hype/isn’t feasible/isn’t marketable.
4a. Discovery/invention is either disregarded or 4b. repurposed; something that was supposed to dramatically improve poor people’s lives finds a niche market among rich people who didn’t really need it (See, for example, Lifestraws, which were supposed to solve lack of access to drinking water in developing countries, but now are mostly used by hiking enthusiasts).
This cycle has played out many times, but yet we all giddily jump up and down again when a new brilliant innovation is announced. Although most of my experience has been in the domains of environment and development, this cycle plays out in lots of other arenas as well: recently, the invention of an anti-rape nail polish (a chemical solution that allows one to dip a finger in a drink to determine if it’s been drugged) was the source of much excitement on my newsfeed. My mind went back 8 or 9 years ago to the similarly-hyped ‘Rapex‘ condom, a much more aggressive device that was meant to not only stop rape but catch perpetrators. I imagine in a few years, a reference to this new drug-detecting nail polish will be as obscure as my reference to Rapex is now.
Why is our enthusiasm for new technological solutions to societal problems undampened by previous failures?. Maybe it’s because the underlying belief that technology will save us is so seductive. And the search for a silver bullet is extremely comforting in that it allows us to put off reckoning with the problems we’re unwilling to confront (often because we caused them ourselves) until some new technology makes such a reckoning unnecessary:
You can keep driving your SUVs and cutting down trees, because Bill Gates is working on a machine to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
We can all keep wasting food and throwing things in the trash because some laboratory somewhere is working on turning garbage into jet fuel, or something like that.
Our attitudes about masculinity and sexuality are fine and don’t need to be revisited or reconsidered; it would be much easier to just use this thingamajig that stops the few bad guys from being rapists.
To state that technology is morally neutral is almost tautological but it bears reformulating: technologies help societies and individuals better do what it is they want to do anyway: If you want to connect with people you’ve lost touch with and build a community, for example, social media will help you do that. If you want to make yourself feel bigger by bullying other people and spreading rumours, social media can help you do that, too.
If our goal as a society is to wring maximum profit out of the earth, then all our technologies will ultimately help us do that. Until we get together and decide that there are other goals that might be more important to pursue at a societal level, no technological development is going to cause us to accidentally start living sustainably.
It is true that, every once in a generation or so, an innovation comes along that actually does radically change things for the better (on balance, of course; nothing is perfect). But the thing is, we are very bad at guessing what it will be before it’s run its course; even Steve Jobs thought the Segway would have a bigger societal impact than the personal computer.