Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 3/27/2014 | 18 comments

Sara Peters
Today at E2 sister site Information Week, Robert Atkinson wrote an excellent column titled "Tech Fear-Mongering Must Stop."

It's a passionate, intelligent, well-researched, well-supported, and well-written commentary, and I urge you to read it top to bottom. While I agree with some of what Atkinson is saying, I think he takes it a bit too far.

Atkinson warns that technological innovation in the US is screeching to a halt because the media, political lobbyists, and even academics are more interested in sensational attention-grabbing fear-mongering than in real science. He writes:

Founded by risk-takers and optimists, Americans have long thought that newer is better and that you can't stand in the way of progress. Other nations, constrained by the shackles of the past and the resisters of the present, have viewed that American spirit as simply extraordinary. Even Joseph Stalin proclaimed: "American efficiency is that indomitable spirit which neither knows nor will be deterred by any obstacle... that simply must go through with a job once it has been tackled..."

Today, however, increasingly vocal neo-Luddites in this country argue that progress is a force to be stopped, not encouraged. They want a world in which a worker never loses a job, even when the new technology behind it leads to higher employment; a world in which consumer rights trump all other considerations, even lower prices; a world in which no personal information is shared, even if sharing benefits individuals and companies alike. In short, they want to slow advancement at all costs, even when those costs ultimately hurt the public they're trying to protect.

While Atkinson focuses on the speed of progress, I'm more interested in the quality of progress. And, while he views caution as a deterrent to progress, I see it as a sign of progress -- or more accurately, maturity.

Maybe America is growing up. Maybe it is learning how to move ahead more purposefully and deliberately, albeit in a slow and not very graceful fashion, and once it learns how to do this, the speed of technological innovation will pick up again.

This got me thinking about the speed of human thought and I came across an article in Discover Magazine about 19th-century scientist Hermann von Helmholtz, who tried to determine the speed of a thought and how it compared to the speed of a telegraph. He ballparked it at slower than the speed of sound but faster than a bird. However, as the author concluded:

So when Helmholtz recognized that thought moves at a finite rate, faster than a bird but slower than sound, he missed a fundamental difference between the brain and a telegraph. In our heads, speed is not always the most important thing. Sometimes what really matters is timing.

Timing. Today's telecommunications infrastructure gives us the power to act faster than we can think. Sure, it provides us with resources to help us make wiser, more informed decisions. But it gives us more speed than it gives us wisdom. I sympathize with Atkinson's impatience, but unfortunately the potential speed of technological innovation and the potential speed of society's ability to handle those innovations do not always match up. Sometimes, the world simply isn't ready -- not because of groundless, so-called "neo-Luddite" fears, but because of legitimate societal reasons. It's all in the timing.

Change is good, but time should always be taken to ask questions. Horrors like genocide and police states -- things that ultimately have to be dismantled by other horrors, like war -- don't just happen overnight. They happen as a result of smaller changes that may seem relatively innocent at the time. They might have been prevented if more people said "wait just a moment, here, think of what this could lead to." I'm not saying that all technological innovation will lead to genocide and police states. What I am saying is that technology -- even just one piece of code -- can cause big change all across the world, very quickly, and be very hard to undo once it makes its rounds on the Internet. We shouldn't let that fact terrify us into inaction, nor should we dismiss the possibilities.

Atkison worries that the United States will never again lead the world in government-funded science and technology nor create "sophisticated national innovation policies." As he states, "There's too much mistrust of government in the US for that. Where we could still trump other nations is in our unalloyed embrace of progress, but we're at risk of losing our American exceptionalism as we become cautious and fearful."

I believe Atkinson is right about that, but I'm not as dismayed about it as he is. I'm less concerned with leading the pack than I am with where the pack is going. The childish desire to always be in front is something we need to discard as we mature as a nation.

Again, I agree with Atkinson in part. When restricting or accelerating progress, we need to give just as much thought to the risk of not changing as we do to the risk of changing. We mustn't allow these decisions to be based on fear alone. However, I think there is a great difference between fear and caution, and caution is not just acceptable, but essential.

Maybe I'm just a ninny -- silly and skittish. After all, I couldn't get past the second question on the "Do You Like Progress" test Atkinson references; I simply couldn't commit myself to concrete responses. What do you think?

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Gigi   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/9/2014 4:35:34 AM
Re: nature of change
"could not agree more... but we are living in the interesting period of human history... where Paradigm changing right in front of our faces... First Black President in USA... micro technology grow.. tablets/nettops pushing laptops and desktops from the table... everything get to the cloud..."

Batye, so meant that everything is good and we have to agree for that. but when such technologies happens to be in wrong hands, everything can have negative impact too.
batye   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/3/2014 3:47:52 AM
Re: Apply accelerator and brake simultaneously
could not agree more... some of my older customers just get lost in the fields odf new technology... 
batye   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/3/2014 3:46:37 AM
Re: nature of change
could not agree more... but we are living in the interesting period of human history... where Paradigm changing right in front of our faces... First Black President in USA... micro technology grow.. tablets/nettops pushing laptops and desktops from the table... everything get to the cloud...
Gigi   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/2/2014 3:32:05 AM
Re: nature of change
"I agree, not all changes are good but u need some changes to compete your competitors. basically going for change means going for risk and business is all about risk. High risk, profits and low risk low profits."

Masood, you are right. Innovations are good and it becomes bad, when you are looking from other angles. Its true with most of the technologies.
Sara Peters   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/1/2014 10:28:22 AM
Re: nature of change
@PedroGonzalez  I'm glad you agree! Do you think that the need to lead the pack has gotten the US into some of its foreign relations problems? I feel like the habit of pushing other nations to "do as we do or get out of our way" is rather adolescent behavior, and I think it's gotten us into trouble.
Pedro Gonzales   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   4/1/2014 10:18:53 AM
Re: nature of change
I agree. Otherwise we will return to the 1900's were child labor and poor working conditions were everywhere.  I agree with you Sarah that instead of being the leaders of the pack we should focus on a direction and use technology to support that direction.  Innovation is good but where is it leading us, if its leading us to improve our society or solve our problem great,but if not we must re assess ourselves. 
kstaron   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   3/31/2014 3:42:50 PM
all for caution
Tech is moving at a faster pace than we have ever seen it. Our minds and our society are having a difficult time keeping up. Using a bit of caution in figuring how someone could use tech in the wrong way can prevent or at least discourage it from happening. We never need to change for the sake of change, not stay the same becasue that's how it's always been. But we need to take a serious look at what we are doing with technology or any other thing we do and see how it can help and how it might harm before going forward.
Sara Peters   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   3/31/2014 1:24:01 PM
Re: nature of change
@Hammad  @shakeeb  Well I agree with you both, that businesses can't be averse to change out of fear. But businesses also rarely take even the slightest responsibility for the plight of the average person. That's why regulations exist. Because given the option, the lion's share of businesses will do what's best for them, without a care for things like pollution, public health, or unemployment.
Sara Peters   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   3/31/2014 1:20:21 PM
Re: Apply accelerator and brake simultaneously
@LuFu  "One problem always arises when technology innovation is too rapid and humans can't adapt quick enough to understand it, employ it correctly, or incorporate it smoothly into society. Technology can often be disruptive whereas biological organisms progress at a slower more methodical rate."  My point, exactly.

And although some innovations will make things better off in the long-term, the risks in the short-term or medium-term are too great to justify rapid wholesale change.

Like a hydrologist once explained to me, a tree is good at storing water so it can survive for awhile in a drought. Grass isn't. So it dies really quickly. It doesn't do the grass any good if you tell it "a month from now, you're going to have plenty of water," because it's dead long before then. And it's the same with people. Saying "three years from now the market will correct itself and you'll have time to learn new skills and you'll have a good job then," won't do a person who's just been laid off any good, because their severance package and unemployment benefits will run out in months, not years. They'll be homeless long before the market adjusts.

LuFu   Tech Innovation Is Good, but So Is Caution   3/30/2014 4:31:37 PM
Apply accelerator and brake simultaneously
Per Atkinson's survey - I think you can count me a skeptical progressive or a progressive skeptic. I'm all for progress but I'm not on board for progress just for the sake of it. One problem always arises when technology innovation is too rapid and humans can't adapt quick enough to understand it, employ it correctly, or incorporate it smoothly into society. Technology can often be disruptive whereas biological organisms progress at a slower more methodical rate.
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