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The technologies not invented

What if the undetectable bomb was invented? What if we could read each other’s minds? What if we could see through clothes? None of these technologies are beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed in some form, all of these are already available, admittedly not widely nor in a practically usable form. In each of these cases we are no more than a few years away from being able in theory to create accessible versions of these technologies for everyday use.

Imagine the physical and cultural impact of these technologies. The undetectable bomb would make the effort of detecting a weapon meaningless; intent would by itself be indistinguishable from effect. Apart from the heightened risk posed by the idea of air travel, and the enormous impact that could occur as a result, it would create a democracy of doubt by making all human beings potential terrorists, with no way of being able to verify one’s suspicions. The possible scenarios that could develop are too numerous and varied to go into, but suffice it to say that the impact would be profound. Similarly, if one look through clothes or read minds, the nature of civilization itself would change in a fundamental way. Ideas of privacy, modesty, of what constitutes the self, and what governs relationships would all need re-definition.

The object of these thought experiments is not to speculate on the future or to focus on the specific technologies in question but to think about the profound impact of technologies not yet invented. It is common to think of technology as a presence that shapes how we live and it is usual to think of progress as a movement forward, and for technology to be seen as a fundamental force that propels us towards the future. Given its incremental nature, wherein innovation occurs in a series of recurrent waves, technological progress is seen almost as a cultural given; an inevitable and inexorable process that improves the quality of our lives by continuing to improve itself. We all know that technology has a deep impact on culture as it modifies the assumptions on which we base societal norms and makes us re-imagine the way in which human beings organize themselves and interact with each other. A mobile phone for instance, has helped re-order space and time, helped individuals get a unique address in life and softened the notion of hierarchy for it is now possible to reach anyone directly without any intermediate screening. The cascading effects of mobile phones are far-reaching and they go well beyond the functional advantages they offer by way of better communication. They are not merely life-altering devices for individuals but change the nature of society in deep, albeit subtle ways. The impact of the Internet is perhaps even more profound for it helps re-define the very idea of power by giving everyone a voice; the Internet is nothing more than a slightly organized babble of individual voices. The Internet allows us to communicate directly to each other, it dismantles the barriers built around information and knowledge and disables the very idea of scale.

And yet, because of the continuous nature of innovation, we think of technology as if it were a natural process, increasingly aligned with the idea of civilization. By and large, we do not think of social change caused by technology as a rupture, but as a form of progression, or in some cases as a regression. For most part technology takes us forward into the future, evoking an occasional nostalgia about the good old days when life was simpler. In most cases, the social change caused by technology is seen as being inevitable, and its impact is often sought to be underplayed. Because culture changes slowly in response to technology, we get time to absorb the effects of technology and make them appear natural. The structural impact of technology is often deeper than its functional footprint; it is much easier to acknowledge the advantages of a mobile phone ( i can speak to my close ones from anywhere and at any time, for example) and its disadvantages (it eats up all personal time) than to recognize how it shapes ideas of identity, hierarchy and the sense of being an individual. Even a technology with as overt a cultural footprint as the contraceptive pill or Viagra, gets absorbed into our lives, without being seen as being too disruptive.

It is when we focus on things not invented that we can see the relationship between technology and culture more clearly. It becomes apparent that culture is perched precariously on top of some basic assumptions that are easy to dismantle. This has always been the case, but given the pace of technological change today, combined with the almost blasé attitude we have towards it, the ability to recognize this seems underdeveloped in today’s world.

Technology produces certitude when it should also simultaneously multiply doubt. Cultures are constructed around an understanding of human capability which technology enhances and modifies. If we could, for instance, read each other’s minds, several of civilisation’s founding assumptions will get dismantled for what we call culture is an edifice built on the technology called the human body. As this technology acquires new abilities, culture needs to change. The faster, more discontinuous and fundamental the nature of this change, the greater the need for cultures to find ways to fill this gap. The ability of culture to change shape and reach a new equilibrium is not neither inevitable nor absolute. The urge to believe in a stable and continuous world makes us minimize the effect of technological change but who is to say that we will be able to do that forever?