The dangerous appeal of technology-driven futures

Selman Design

The dangerous appeal of technology-driven futures
MIT Technology Review, June 30, 2021
by Sheila Jasanoff

“Technology doesn’t rule us. We direct it, but often by inaction.”


Love it or hate it, technology enthralls us with the promise of change.

Sometimes it’s the presumed benefits that grab our attention: curing disease, replacing fossil fuels, increasing food supplies, unlocking the secrets of the deep sea, colonizing Mars, or ending the ravages of old age. Other times the risks loom larger. What if we unleash a killer virus, set in motion a nuclear doomsday, block out harmful solar radiation with chemicals that prove toxic, or build computers that decide humans are dispensable?


The battle between light and dark in the way we imagine technological change is ancient. In Greek mythology, Prometheus suffered agonies for bringing fire to Earth, and Daedalus lost his son to the urge to fly to freedom. But the most optimistic and most pessimistic views of technology both rely on a common misconception: that a technological pathway, once embarked upon, leads to inevitable social consequences, whether utopian or dystopian.


This view, known as technological determinism, is historically flawed, politically dangerous, and ethically questionable. To achieve progress, societies like ours need a more dynamic understanding of why technology changes, how we change with it, and how we might govern our powerful, marvelous machines.


Technology is not an autonomous force independent of society, nor are the directions of technological change fixed by nature. Technology at its most basic is toolmaking. Insisting that technological advances are inevitable keeps us from acknowledging the disparities of wealth and power that drive innovation for good or ill.


Technology is always a collective venture. It is what it is because many people imagined it, labored for it, took risks with it, standardized and regulated it, vanquished competitors, and made markets to advance their visions. If we treat technology as self-directed, we overlook all these interlocking contributions, and we risk distributing the rewards of invention unfairly. Today, an executive officer of a successful biotech company can sell stock worth millions of dollars, while those who clean the lab or volunteer for clinical trials gain very little. Ignoring the unequal social arrangements that produced inventions tends to reproduce those same inequalities in the distribution of benefits.


Throughout human history, the desire for economic gain has underwritten the search for new tools and instruments—in fields like mining, fishing, agriculture, and recently gene prospecting. These tools open up new markets and new ways to extract resources, but what the innovator sees as progress often brings unwanted change to communities colonized by imported technologies and their makers’ ambitions.

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About the Author:

Sheila Jasanoff is professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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