23 November 2013

Peak Technology

Biking around Paris today I saw a poster similar to this one:
One of the phrases on the poster I saw was saying something like "we don't want better and more modern housing here, because we cannot afford that".
So I thought it's interesting that people are actually refusing something better than they already have.

And then I thought about lots of modern inventions which people don't really need. Like displays with a resolution that's almost better than our eyes can notice. Or cars that can go faster than is permitted to go on public roads. I could go on and on and this makes we wonder whether the role of technology in society is changing now. Not long ago (and in a large part of the world still now), technology would benefit the rich more than the poor, but it would still benefit the poor so much that a modern poor person would have a better life than a king two hundred years ago. One of my favorite example is the modern sewage system introduced in our part of the world mainly in the 19th century. It makes life more comfortable and much safer for the rich and the poor alike. Public transit, including air transit is similar. Modern air (or high-speed rail) is a good example how rich and poor pay very different prices for basically the same service (getting somewhere) simply by selling tickets with different conditions like flexibility of travel time/date, space on board, and various premium services. So this technology benefits both rich and poor people and even makes rich people pay more for it. Another example are Android phones which cost between 100 and 400 € while offering basically the same functionality (email, maps, chat, phone, web, ...). This way rich customers automatically contribute more to the development of the software and basic infrastructure than the poor.

Now, after seeing this writing on the Parisian wall... and after considering that my own highest high-tech are my bicycles and some not-so-new computer equipment. I really wonder if technology will really get us any much further as a society. Of course, the internet itself is probably the biggest thing in the tradition of technology which benefits rich and poor alike. And I think that the internet still has a lot of potential, especially in education. And, of course, self-driving cars will be a big relief. But still I think we might be nearing a peak where technology doesn't bring the most progress which universally helps all groups in society. We might soon get to a point where the bottleneck is somewhere else. Or maybe the bigger potential is already somewhere else and we just can't see it because we're all looking in the direction of technology waiting for it to rescue us.

I was looking what this other field of progress could be and while reading about "social advance in society" I found the "Social Progress Imperative" which has published the "Social Progress Index" and I was happy to find this data... but only until I noticed how shallow it is. For instance "respect for women" is measured with a simple poll. Therefore, it is rather "perceived respect for women". Also, Germany is really bad on "percentage of people going into tertiary education", which is likely because Germany's great professional education system hasn't been counted as tertiary education. I understand that the SPI only uses data which had already been collected by various other organisations (as listed in their Appendix), but the result is simply a rating which does not tell as much as it seems. So to sum up, I think that in the future social progress which happens independent of technology progress might be very important. And while technology progress can partly be measured in numbers like connection speeds, pixel rates, etc, there is less agreement and even less comparable data in the field of social progress.


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