State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Technology, Culture, Economics, and Politics

Last week, I wrote about the central role of technology in bringing about the transition to environmental sustainability. This week, I want to broaden the unit of analysis and discuss the central and causal role that technology plays in our way of life. Technological change has been influencing where we live and how we live since humans invented agriculture and moved beyond “hunting and gathering” for sustenance. In the 19th century, the development of train travel (1803) and telegraph (1837) enabled more rapid travel and communication over larger distances. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of the motor vehicle. The Wright Brothers got off the ground in 1903, and the world got smaller and smaller. Air conditioning was invented in the early 20th century and became common in American homes beginning in the 1960s. Refrigeration, radio, television, telephones, computers, the internet, wireless communication, and of course the smart phone have all led to massive changes in the way we live and where we live.

The American suburbs were built around the automobile. The settling of the sunbelt was made possible by air conditioning. The explosive growth of global tourism and international education were made possible by inexpensive jet travel. Facetime and Zoom have made it possible to have frequent face-to-face communication at a price so low to be virtually negligible. This means that people can go to school or can work all over the world and stay in daily communication with family and friends at the push of a button. Global jet travel can place humans (and their contagious viruses) anywhere in the world in a matter of hours or, at most, days.

Technological change has been the largest stimulator of rapid cultural change over the past two centuries. It has changed how we live and exposes us directly to people and places that are very different than the people and places we were exposed to locally. Food that was once specific to a nation or particular city is now available everywhere. New combinations of cuisine, music, theatre, art, and knowledge are being created due to the interactive effects of distinct places engaging with other distinct places. In some cases, people who are extremely parochial or even xenophobic in outlook are not aware of the global influences in their lifestyles. They don’t think of sushi as Japanese food and probably believe that pizza and bagels were invented in America.

We are eager consumers of new technologies, and when we use them, it changes how we live and sometimes how we view the world. This, in turn, impacts our economic interactions and consumption patterns. The development of a service economy with less manual labor has led to a sedentary workday (for many) which in turn has led to the growth of commercial gyms and the growth of professions such as physical training as well as physical and occupational therapy. The invention of the internet has led to an industry built on the web—companies like Google, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Zoom. These companies have created massive changes in how we receive and process information. In turn, social media has led to narrowcasting of information and greater political polarization. It has also led to an ease of communication and information sharing that creates the possibility of greater information transparency but also the creation of disinformation.

The news media frequently focuses on political trends and views, and sometimes its reporting gives the impression that politics is the single, major force that dominates how people live, where they live, and what they do. I am a trained political scientist, and I’m sure at some point, I believed that as well. But over the years, I have become something of a technological determinist. For example, the fossil fuel industry and its advocates believe that public policy will determine our energy mix in the future. Policy will have an influence, but as I indicated last week, technological development is far more important. These days, we hear about national efforts to reduce global trade, and pundits opine that this will somehow destroy global supply chains. These chains were built on the invention of containerized shipping, barcodes, and inexpensive communication and transportation. Those inventions remain powerful influences on corporate behavior. They enable companies to produce higher-quality and lower-cost goods and services and enhance their ability to compete in the still very global marketplace. While supply chains are being replaced by more durable supply webs, the competitive advantage of global supply systems persists, even in the face of political obstacles. Companies find workarounds to avoid anti-trade policies. If the United States government limits imports from China, companies will find or build a supplier in Vietnam, Indonesia, or Kansas. The growth of automation and artificial intelligence makes the price of labor less important in manufacturing.

The causal sequence is that new technology changes human behavior and culture. This, in turn, influences economic life and economic interactions. The pursuit of economic well-being is the single greatest influence on politics and public policy. But the strongest force in this causal sequence is technology. It initiates the behaviors that create change in the status quo.

The problem with the importance and influence of technology is that the positive impacts of new technologies must be balanced against their negative impacts or costs. America’s political economy is better equipped to monetize the benefits of new technologies than regulate and mitigate the costs they bring. While the use of new medical technology is regulated by the application of the precautionary principle, most other technologies are freely utilized and only regulated once their negative effects are so obvious they cannot be ignored. New drugs are tested before they are allowed to be marketed. In contrast, non-medical chemicals that are proven to cause harm are rarely regulated.

The irony, of course, is that once a technology is proven to cause harm, the typical method of regulation is to require that another technology be used to mitigate that harm, such as the use of a catalytic converter to reduce motor vehicle pollution. Another response is to encourage the invention of a new technology that eliminates the harm of concern, such as an electric vehicle, which has no tailpipe emissions. The issue then becomes the logistical and economic feasibility of implementing the new technology. In some cases, the new technology that was invented to replace a harmful technology has unanticipated benefits that can be marketed as a new product. Seat belts and airbags made cars safer, and auto safety itself became a marketable “product.”

Then there are new technologies that initially have limited impact but grow to have massive unanticipated impacts. The internet was originally invented to share data for analysis between U.S. government computers. It was invented to improve data security and availability. Eventually, its commercialization by the U.S. government and the subsequent development of web browsers and websites enabled it to become a method to share information and entertainment. With the development of search engines and now artificial intelligence, the utilization of this technology has expanded with many positive and negative impacts. Last week, here in New York, a “social media influencer” caused a near riot in Union Square, drawing a crowd for a “give-away” that went out of control. The behaviors of social media influencers and those influenced have pre-internet origins, but the speed of communication that caused a crowd to gather and grow in Union Square was made possible by the invention of the internet. The standard operating procedures of the New York Police Department were challenged by this behavior, and will now need to be modified.

The influence of technology on society, economics, and politics creates governance and regulatory issues that are quite challenging. The technology of the internet and smartphone-enabled economic interactions have created new business models such as those of Uber and Airbnb. Over many decades, governments figured out how to regulate taxis and hotels, but these new businesses created novel issues that were difficult to understand and regulate. Moreover, Uber and Airbnb have a customer base that strongly supports the maintenance of these new services. Governments often have difficulty understanding the technology or changed behaviors of these new businesses enough to address negative impacts. We also see this same phenomenon in efforts to regulate social media and artificial intelligence.

Despite these issues, the force of technological innovation cannot be contained and should not be ignored. Extrapolating future developments from historic trendlines is a prescription for error. Technological development and diffusion are unpredictable. New technology will continue to be the major cause of social, economic, and political change. It is not a monolithic influence, but it is a dominant one.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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8 months ago

great perception in technology and economy! couldn’t agree more!