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Technology is a double-edged sword

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Over at the New Statesman, Steven Poole is Mad as Hell. Like Howard Beale in the film Network, he’s Not Going to Take It Any More. What’s bugging him is what he calls “cybertheorists” (aka “cyberhustlers”) – the guys – and they are mostly guys – who are constantly “dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade. As did many religious rebels before them, they come to bring not peace, but a sword. Change is inevitable; we must abandon the old ways. The cybertheorists, however, are a peculiarly corporatist species of the Leninist class: they agitate for constant revolution but the main beneficiaries will be the giant technology companies before whose virtual image they prostrate themselves”.

There’s lots more in that indignant vein. Who are these intellectual hustlers, these “Pol Pots of the touchscreen and Twitter”? Poole fingers the usual suspects – Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson (only a “minor cybertheorist”, poor chap) and a brace of Chris Andersons (one the ex-editor of Wired and the other the guy behind TED talks). To which one expostulates: what – no Kevin Kelly!!! And where are Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow and Nicholas Negroponte, to name just three other cheerleaders for the digital future? If Poole is so annoyed, then he might at least have prepared a more comprehensive charge sheet.

Cynical web-marketing types might view Poole’s rant as what is known in the trade as “linkbait” on the grounds that articles that namecheck prominent digerati tend to attract lots of Google juice. But let us be charitable and attribute no such sordid motive to him. What his piece usefully highlights is a serious asymmetry in our public discourse about the internet and, indeed, about technology in general.

One way of thinking about this is suggested by the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist who was fascinated by the process of economic development. Pondering the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in this process, Schumpeter argued that capitalism renews itself in periodic waves of traumatic upheaval. He was not the first to have this idea, but he was the first to come up with a memorable term for the process: Schumpeter called them waves of “creative destruction”.

We’re living through one such wave at the moment, but our public discourse about it is lopsided. That’s because the narrative tends to be dominated by enthusiasts and evangelists, by people who, like the “cybertheorists” Poole detests, tend to focus on the creative side of the Schumpeterian wave. At the same time, people who are sceptical or fearful about the new technology tend to be labelled – and sometimes derided – as luddites or technophobes.

The trouble is that Schumpeter meant what he said: innovation is a double-edged sword. Digital technology is indeed creative, in the sense that it enables us to do new things that were hitherto impossible, or to do old things better. In the case of the internet, for example just think of the web, Wikipedia and Skype, all instances of technology that have transformed our lives, mostly for the better.

But technology is also destructive in the sense that it …

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