Being wrong about technology

We always get the final effects of new technology wrong, usually by a mile. The big media companies are no exception.

People routinely over-estimate the effects of change – technological change especially. Where technology is involved, the machines are assumed to be in charge. This is what they call technological determinism. Bill Joy, programming guru and Sun co-founder, is a born-again determinist. He gave us a cast-iron determinist case study when he famously over-estimated the implications of artificial intelligence, nano-fabrication and biotech to conjure up a nightmare of our ultimate enslavement by robots in Wired Magazine. His analysis assumed the unimpeded victory of tech over mere flesh (John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, authors of The Social Life of Information, a critical corrective to determinists and absolutists everywhere, disagreed with Joy). Joy’s fantasy was a dystopian inversion of the euphoric norm but, like techies everywhere, he argued exclusively from the theoretical capabilities of the technology, making no allowance at all for the countervailing force offered by a technology’s context – social, economic and political.

You might not find the analogy re-assuring, while the Indians and Pakistanis are squaring off in Kashmir, but nuclear deterrence offers a pretty good counter-example. The potential of the atom bomb is to eliminate all life on this planet in the blink of an eye.This potential, though, has been comprehensively neutralised by a complicated human-scale context for nearly 60 years. That’s not to say that we won’t all die in a nuclear conflagration but rather that, if we don’t, it will be because human beings wouldn’t let it and not because of a failure in the blueprint for the technology.

There’s plenty of evidence that the potential of a new technology is no guide to its actual effects – that the technology is not in charge at all. A new technology’s context – messy, contingent and human – always gets in the way, interferes. The irony of the media owners’ hysteria over file sharing is that the media provide some of the best case studies for the decisive role of context. Question 1: which of these technologies was widely supposed to herald the outright destruction of one or more earlier ones: printing, photography, the gramophone, the telephone, radio, television, magnetic tape, the photo-copier, audio cassette recorders, video cassette recorders, DAT recorders, MiniDisc recorders. Answer: all of them. Question 2: which of them actually destroyed anything? Answer: none of them.

Only an economic numbskull would argue that file sharing will have no effect on the people who own the shared material. It’s the scale and direction of the effect that’s in doubt. The rights owners, not for the first time, make the most literal possible reading of the technology. They can see only its destructive potential so their official estimates of economic damage are always apocalyptic, outcomes always terminal (and, like anyone defending an entrenched position, they have good reason to exaggerate the impact of change). But the rights owners’ over-estimation is becoming obvious. Five times more tracks were downloaded last year than purchased legally, more blank CDs were sold than pre-recorded ones. On the face of it, as normally pro-media owner economist Stan Liebowitz points out in an interview in Salon (may require you to subscribe), such enormous economic substitution has already occurred that the record industry should have been wiped out. Yet the fall in CD sales in the most exposed economy of all, the USA, totals no more than 5%. Where is the hidden damage? Could it be that context – the friction supplied by long-held purchase and consumption habits and by our huge investment in the way we do things now – is more influential than the unarguable technology itself?