Saturday, December 02, 2006

Arms Races, Values, and Technology Regulation

Toward the end of his meta-study Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rodgers surveys the distributive effects of new technologies. He concludes that new technologies tend to increase the gap between haves and have-nots, as the wealthy and powerful gain advantages over those unable to afford new ways of doing things.

Of course, the remainder of Rodgers' study focuses on the "cure" of this process: the diffusion of innovation across society. As Gaia has noted, diffusion can be advanced or retarded by law in many ways.

My blog posts this week will focus on some special cases where society needs to be especially concerned about the rate of diffusion of new technology. Certain technologies merit special monitoring because they either a) promote the leveraging of economic advantage into social or cultural advantage without increasing overall social welfare substantially or b) threaten to undermine the system of values and perceptions commonly used to evaluate technology. I want to talk about these two processes together because they confound common ideological divisions, and the most dangerous new technologies tend to do both a) and b) together.

The law's current emphasis on innovation is understandable to the extent that it improves social welfare. However, much technology may be used not simply to improve its user's life but also to help its user gain advantage over others. Expensive SUV's have provoked a "highway arms race," since the "extra weight of SUVs rearranges where deaths occur in crashes, transferring deaths from the SUVs to the cars." The net neutrality debate may be framed in similar, if less dramatic, zero-sum terms: whose content gets where faster, and for how much?

At one point in time, we could perhaps count on a common, technologically unmediated response to these dilemmas. But mind-focused technological interventions--such as "therapeutic forgetting," some forms of "cosmetic psychopharmacology," and new attention-enhancment drugs--may blunt such qualms. They may promote competition in the new arms races, rather than social questioning of their fairness or premises. This process can raise deep problems for theorists, for it heralds the technological undermining of the very values upon which we rely to judge technology.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Simulacrum (homage to The Matrix.).


Blogger Lyria Bennett Moses said...

Another example is genetic testing for embryos: even at the level of weeding out disability (as opposed to the more problematic enhancement) it could change our views of what disability means and enhance the link between poverty and disability.

12/03/2006 1:04 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

That's a great example. YEs, I hope to look at ways that advanced technologies can strengthen extant correlations between various forms of disadvantage.

There's a tragic aspect to progress here, too--if the disabled become rarer due to this type of selection, they face a much more difficult fate than if they are a larger portion of the population. Moreover, to the extent the disabled are disproportionately poor, they will find it very difficult to lobby for accommodation.

12/03/2006 10:03 AM  

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