50 years ago, most people didn’t care about data. Now we do. This change coincides with movements away from central or top-down control of access to information and power, as has been the historical imperial norm for millennia, to decentralized power structures where information is freely distributed and networked.
Much talk in business circles centers on the desirability that organizations should adopt more flexible and agile modes of work. While there can be little doubt that nimbleness is good, it is the nature of bureaucracy to resist this and facile recommendations can not only be fatuous, but miss certain essential truths about the history of technology. Among the essentials: real disruption is rare and when it comes the cost is generally great. Unintended consequences can outweigh planned benefits in significance. No less important, liberating moments can come about either despite the use of technology for control or as an unintended consequence of deployment. Disruption has often as not meant efforts by centers of power to expand influence, suppress dissent or eliminate opposition through force. Either intentionally or accidentally, much of the real impact of new technology has been of this sort.
Early in the Twentieth Century, the automobile became a freedom machine that allowed people of ordinary means to live in nicer locations at some remove from the mostly unpleasant places where they worked. Additionally, autos enabled individuals and burgeoning families to travel and enjoy hitherto unknown opportunities for recreation. Autos also brought smog, destroyed vibrant neighborhoods through infrastructure and began the unwinding of personal contact by distancing people from neighbors and others in bedroom communities. Lately, as they become more “connected,” cars are losing the characteristic of freedom machines to take on a support role for the surveillance state that is marketed as a convenience while limiting actual freedom of mobility and action as well as that quaint notion, privacy. The history of the automobile furnishes examples of both liberating moments and disruptive technology.
The data revolution started over 100 years ago when Hollerith, later part of IBM, created punch cards to facilitate people measurement for the U.S. Department of the Census. It wasn’t long before the same technology was embraced by the efficiency intoxicated German Third Reich and used with great effect, along with emerging statistical methods, to manage the materiel of Blitzkrieg while also enabling the Holocaust. This was disruptive in that it allowed centralized control and even liquidation of millions of lives through the use of data science. This is sobering for those who would like to believe that “AI” is now supporting data enabled action “on a human scale.”
Radio enabled the ideas of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann on how to manipulate the masses by and for the benefit of elites to take a quantum leap. A by-product was selling lots of stuff folks didn’t need or couldn’t afford and dialing up “consumerism.” Linear television was an evolution of this but was essentially more of the same and gave us more couch potatoes who sat passively in front of gamma ray showering electron guns. This, along with a diet of mainly Round Up Ready sugar, has made these consumers not very incredible hulks. The playbook for mass media was admirably portrayed in the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky classic, “Network.” The application of media to create or shape acceptable reality has continued since as the farce of “journalism” in the most recent U.S. election cycle amply demonstrates.
Nuclear weapons and their development, use and proliferation need no further comment, being a disruptive technology if ever there was one.
The birth control pill was both disruptive and liberating.
Since the early 1900’s, while modern marvels abounded, few really disruptive technologies have come along. In the latter half of the 20th Century we saw Sputnik and the space race, which gave us Tang, Teflon and ICBMs.
Then something different happened. We got personal computers, largely because of hapless efforts by IBM to elevate a toy into a sophisticated yet user-friendly device to enable individuals to perform end runs around the information bottle necks and power concentration points Big Blue had mainly served. It then wasn’t long before these devices became networked and radical peer-to-peer innovations enabled individual empowerment on a scale never before seen in human history. Mobile technology has taken us even further in enabling the disconnection of work from place. On the one hand, this means that employers, having spent decades chasing the cheapest labor rates around the globe, no longer need to employ full-time workers at all, as record numbers of part-time and sidelined workers show. On the other hand, workers are empowered as never before to connect with others to provide value in flexible ways, meaning the mega-corporation is losing its grip on the means and ends of production. Even the nature of such tools of centralized control as fiat currency is being threatened by the anarchic and asynchronous liberation of information from the time, space, collection and transmission controls of the elites.
The genie is truly out of the bottle. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but the kind of centralized control that gave us World Wars I and II, the Cold War and the constant threat of life extinction on our home world is on the run. As Neo said in The Matrix, “I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell how it’s going to begin…Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”
Postscript, November 8, 2020
We have our answer. 2020 has shown that the gloves have come off and the mephistophelean controllers have pulled out the stops to co-opt and subvert liberating technology to create global techno-totalitarianism. It remains to be seen whether they will entirely have their way but right now things are looking bleak.