America has long carried on a great love affair with technological progress. But the truth is that really big inventions—the printing press, the internal-combustion engine, the internet—have both upsides and downsides. They make new things possible, but they also tend to undo settled expectations and create chaos. The real question is not whether there will be major technological changes, but whether societies can learn to better handle the disruptions that follow.
There is a lot to learn: Over the past 500 years, humanity has repeatedly blown it. Consider how things stood a century ago, in the early 20th century. People love to say that technology is changing faster today than ever before. But the 1890s through the 1920s witnessed changes far more dramatic than the birth of social media: the invention of airplanes, home electricity, radio broadcasting, tanks, and machine guns. That period and the period immediately after also witnessed terrible labor violence, the rise of totalitarianism, two depressions, two world wars, several genocides, and other mass killings of extraordinary volume. If these horrors were not exactly caused by the wondrous new technologies of the age, they were certainly aided and abetted by them.
Centuries earlier, technological change was also crucial to initiating the colonial era. In the 1400s, advances in transportation and military technologies—gunpowder and ships, most prominently—allowed Western powers to begin conquering and subjugating continents and brutally enslaving millions of people. The process was so traumatic that the wounds are still healing centuries later.
In all these cases, technological inventions were like catalysts, creating what chemists call rapid reactions and what laypeople call explosions. For example, military advances upended whatever deterrence equilibrium existed, giving some countries—Spain, Germany, Japan—reason to think they might overpower others.
If technological shocks have done so much damage, why aren’t we more careful? After all, we know that rivers flood and volcanos erupt, and we take some precautions to mitigate the risks. Why not try to do more to limit the social effects of big inventions?
It turns out that some civilizations have, in fact, been far more cautious about the potential damage caused by technological shocks. Consider the Ming dynasty of China. The Ming arose in the 1360s, after the chaos and destruction of the Mongolian invasions. If Hongwu, the first Ming emperor, had had a campaign slogan, it would have been “A return to normalcy.” He and his successors sought to isolate China from foreign influence and mimic historical golden periods. They did so, in part, out of fear that technological change would create unrest and suffering.
But technology-repressive civilizations like the Ming or medieval Europe create their own sort of unrest and suffering. Some scholars of Chinese history have described the Ming dynasty as the world’s first totalitarian state. Suppressing technological change tends to require an unpleasant level of state control and creates the risk of another kind of technological shock—attack by a conquering army equipped with much more advanced weapons. In China’s case, suppressing technological innovation set the stage for colonization by Western powers, invasion by the Japanese, and untold suffering in the 20th century.
Today’s most powerful nations don’t have the problem of Ming China. Instead, they have embraced the opposite orientation—extreme technophilia. America in particular is exceptionally forward-looking. We are always imagining utopian futures, believing that “the best is yet to come.” The phrase scientific progress has an almost talismanic allure to it, and calling someone “backward-looking” is an insult. As the social critic Neil Postman put it in 1992, we “gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”
Postman opens his book Technopoly with the startling observation (credited to the Egyptian King Thamus) that even the invention of writing had costs as well as benefits. According to Plato’s Socrates, Thamus said, “What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality … And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.” That sounds a bit like Google searching.
So if the extremes are intense technophobia (Ming China) or intense technophilia (the U.S., at least until recently), I’d like to believe we can do better—by creating a resilient civilization capable of surviving periods of very rapid technological change without tipping into class warfare, severe economic depression, violent revolution, mass dislocation, colonization, or catastrophic militarism.
Societies can become resilient in two main ways. First, they can take steps to buffer and mitigate the effects of social dislocation. For example, since technological shocks have historically led to a major consolidation of wealth and the rise of new monopoly powers, societies can dissipate the shock by breaking up the monopolies and ensuring there are measures for redistributing wealth. Second, instead of being uniformly technophilic or technophobic, societies might be wise to go through cycles—one cycle of inventing a whole bunch of new stuff, followed by another cycle of fixing all the damage that’s been done. Then repeat.
Judging by historical standards, the U.S. could be doing worse. Thanks to social safety nets and other stabilizing interventions, we are probably a little more resilient now than we were in the 20th century. But no one can deny that technological change has created instability in the past few decades, especially among the least-well-off socioeconomic classes. And things could still get much worse before they get better. The rise of the major tech platforms has already triggered forms of struggle and borderline class warfare by disrupting industries at the periphery of the economy, including advertising and some retail. If larger, more significant industries begin to fall—say, the automobile industry—the economic uncertainty could be explosive.
There’s also the invading-army kind of technological shock, which, while somewhat different today, is not a joke. The country needs to be able to deter and better prevent threats like foreign manipulation of its elections and the stirring of domestic unrest.
I do see signs that we have moved into a less technophilic period and are taking a hard look at where we’ve gone wrong and what damage we’ve done. Now we might be ready to repair it.
This article was excerpted from Wu’s essay in the recent book Which Side of History?