Centric connect.engage.succeed

Technology, networks and society

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 23 oktober 2015

Ben van Lier
According to Philip Howard, we are entering a new era where: “wired and wireless devices will be everywhere, embedded in a range of everyday objects and therefore less visible” (2015 pp.xix). This new era is what he calls the era of Pax Technica [1].

The experience of entering a new era on the back of technological developments was also one French sociologist Jacques Ellul had, who wrote in 1954: “It might be said that technique is the translation into action of man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is subconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature, that take hold of chaos and put order into it.” (1964 pp.43) Ellul called his new era the Technological Society. The difference between Ellul and Howard are the networks that, on the one hand, increase our scope of action but on the other hand also make us more and more dependent on these networks actually functioning.

Technological society

Halfway into the twentieth century, it was clear to Jacques Ellul [2] that the world was on the verge of a new order. A new order rising out of the ashes of World War II and the new technology that was developed during the war. One clear example of such new technology is the first atom bomb, which gave humanity the capability to self-destruct. The technology developed in those years ultimately became the technology that took us to the moon, enabled mass production and mass use of cars and aircraft, and brought radios, televisions, and telephones to every living room as stand-alone devices. There was no doubt in Ellul's mind that the technological advances of his time would pose a challenge for “every country, an individual, or a system” (1964, pp.84). According to Ellul, the inevitability of this development would give rise to a new responsibility for the technological society, i.e. the responsibility to continuously assess both the negative and positive consequences ensuing from the development of technology. There is, in his view, only one body that has the capacity to influence this technological development, and that is the state. Taking a more gloomy view, he countered this with the assertion that whenever the state attempts to influence the development of technology, the state itself basically becomes a form of technology. Ellul saw the phenomenon of technology as one that would address not the question of what is and what is not an appropriate form of government, but rather focus on whether or not the state is facilitating further development and distribution of technology. This places the state in between two new realities, or as Ellul put it: “The state is no longer caught between political reality and moral theories and imperatives. It is caught between political reality and technical means. The problem is to find the state form most adequate to the application of the techniques the state has at its disposal” (1964, pp.277). It was Ellul's firm belief that technology would become increasingly important over subsequent decades, and develop even faster with the state's help. With the connection between state and technology becoming closer and closer, this new combination becomes the driving force behind the development of the modern world, leading Ellul to say that: “they buttress and reinforce each other in their aim to produce an apparently indestructible, total civilization” (1964, pp.318).

Pax Technica

The past two decades were marked by the advent of the internet, personal computer, laptop computer, and smartphone, which are all things that are increasingly connecting people in networks. We are now on the eve of a new phase in the technological evolution. Besides people, physical objects are also increasingly networked. Growing interconnectedness makes us more and more dependent on global networks in our day-to-day lives, which in turn calls for a global political approach in keeping these networks up and running. In Howard's view, this kind of global political approach is what sets us on our way towards what he calls the era of Pax Technica. He uses this pseudo-Latin term to denote his belief that ever greater dependency on networks and ever faster distribution of networked devices will herald a new phase of stability in world politics. This new stability, according to Howard, rests on close collaboration between major technology firms and states that together will introduce a new world order based on these networks.

The term Pax that Howard uses is one that is often used in a historical context to denote a country as the leading or dominant force in the world in a specific era. History has seen a Pax Romana and a Pax Brittanica, among others, and we are currently in a Pax Americana. Howard's Pax Technica is about the political machinations between countries and major high-tech companies, which are necessary to be able to jointly maintain the stability and predictability of such global networks. Howard therefore states that: “The pax technica is a political, economic and cultural arrangement of institutions and networked devices in which government and industry are tightly bound in mutual defense pacts, design collaborations, standards setting, and data mining” (2015, pp.xx).

Evolution

The Internet as we know it today in Europe and the United States is already used to connect billions of mobile phones, computers, cars, and other devices to networks. Howard argues that these networks have hence grown into one of the largest information infrastructures ever created by man. However, he also sees numerous rivals and potential threats to this Western-oriented network. Clashes with competing networks, such as those in China, or networks with competing values and standards, such as those run by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian regimes and cultures, will over the coming years set the political tone for the Pax Technica. Competition between networks and the need for technical collaboration with private-sector parties will curtail governments' say on how to manage and further develop phenomena such as the (industrial) Internet of Things. The development of this (industrial) Internet of Things is, in Howard's view, an evolution rather than a revolution, as a result of which the development of the Pax Technica will also be a slow but sure evolution. This evolutionary development does however require greater focus on slowly but surely changing international relations and technology's role in this change. Howard notes that this new phase in technological development: “seems to challenge our democratic values in some way. We sense threats to our privacy, and see greater potential for social control and political manipulation. But the Internet of Things will also provide greater opportunities for challenging power and building the institutions we want to build. What kind of new world order will emerge when, everyone, and everything, is connected”(2015, pp.xxv).

Questions concerning Technology

The questions concerning technology that Ellul and Howard address are, taking into account the fact that they lived in different times, essentially not very different. The difference lies mainly in the evolutionary step we are currently making to connect people and physical objects in global networks, thus enabling them to exchange and share data and information. Through these interconnections and this sharing of information and data, we may in fact be creating a new form of revealing, a phenomenon that was first coined by Heidegger [3]: “Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing i.e. of truth.” (1977, pp.12) Slowly but surely, we will have to reckon with the fact that interconnectedness in networks will lay bare an as yet unknown reality, the consequences of which are impossible for us to comprehend in the here and now.

  • 1 Howard P.N. (2015) Pax Technica. How the internet of things may set us free or lock us up. Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300199475
  • 2 Ellul J. (English translation 1964, original French edition 1954) The technological Society. New York, Vintage books.
  • 3 Heidegger M. (English Translation 1977) The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays. New York Harpers & Row ISBN 0061319694

Ben van Lier works at Centric as Director Strategy & Innovation and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

       
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