Technological Progress – Good or Bad?

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

( Aside: The lecture began by repeating the studio theme of hacking the physical world, touching on the constantly growing space in-between the virtual and the physical. )

Our technology, as a society are progressing in a measurable sense. There are both optimistic and pessimistic views to this movement.

Matt Ridley writes in “The Rational Optimist”, that we are in fact richer than Louis XIV due to our increasing, sometimes specialised, division of labour. This is due to the principles of “Comparative Advantage” (strength of ideas through the division of tasks amongst a suitably economic (big) population). Ridley also writes of the evolutionary nature of ideas, where a few can genetically reproduce better ideas, known as the “Ratchet Effect”.

Pessimistic views of technological progress are put forward in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, along with Ronal Wright’s “A Short History of Progress”. Diamond mentions that when agriculture was developed, there was an unhealthy lack of diversity of food sources, though allowed success on a social level. The self-inflicted and natural collapses of societies of Easter Island and Tasmania are also presented.

What about culture-as-evolution? Memes (ideas, behaviours or styles that spreads from person to person within a culture) could potentially be a more balanced approach to progress, even though many things such as art, music, etc. don’t appear to aid in evolutionary development. Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Brodie’s “Virus of the Mind” and Richard and Boyd’s “Not by Genes Alone” discuss evolution through culture. Understanding evolutionary psychology will help explain culture and technology.

Some interesting readings:

“Technology is constantly improving and enriching our lives. For example we are all healthier, wealthier and happier than Louis XIV. This is possible because of both innovation and an increasing division of labour, related to the idea of comparative advantage.”
– Ridley, “The Rational Optimist”,
Ridley on Ted Talks: When Ideas have Sex

“Meme theory. The idea that the law of survival of the fittest applies to culture. The most successful behaviours and ideas may not be the ones that are best for us, they can also be parasitic (e.g., drug addiction).”
– Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”,
(Chapter 11 of the Selfish Gene – discussing the idea of memes – link).
– Sperber, “Seedless Grapes”, (pdf)

“The internet has helped us move from passive to participatory creative media, with everyone now creating content. This has resulted in an increase rather than a decrease in the quality of these outputs.”
– Shirky, “Cognitive Surplus”,
Shirky on Ted Talks: How Cognitive Surplus will change the World

“We have always been cyborgs. Even fire, wheels and clothes are examples of humans-as-cyborgs. But some of the latest innovations have been much more “cognitive”, extending the activities of the human mind.”
– Clark, “Natural Born Cyborgs”
– Laland, “Niche Construction, Human Behaviour and the Adaptive Lag Hypothesis” (∞)

“Showing off, gossiping and bonding with friends are some of the most important things that humans do.”
– Miller, “The Mating Mind”
– Dunbar, “The Social Brain Hypothesis” (link)

The Linked Ted Talks:

Ridley on Ted Talks: When Ideas have Sex 

Shirky on Ted Talks: How Cognitive Surplus will change the World 

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