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Three decades ago, a historian wrote six laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology. Though based on historical examples taken from the Cold War, the laws read as a cheat sheet for explaining our era of Facebook, Google, the iPhone and FOMO.
You’ve probably never heard of these principles or their author, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology who died in 1995.
What’s a bigger shame is that most of the innovators today, who are building the services and tools that have upended society, don’t know them, either.
Fortunately, the laws have been passed down by a small group of technologists who say they have profoundly impacted their thinking. The text should serve as a foundation—something like a Hippocratic oath—for all people who build things.
#1 ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’
Prof. Kranzberg’s first law, a seemingly mundane observation, is also his most important. He realized that the impact of a technology depends on its geographic and cultural context, which means it is often good and bad—at the same time.
His example was DDT, a pesticide and probable carcinogen that nonetheless saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in India as a cheap and effective malaria prevention. Today, we can see how one technology, Facebook groups, can serve as a lifeline for parents of children with rare diseases while also radicalizing political extremists.
There is no absolute good or bad here, just how good or bad a technology is in a given context. This points to a problem tech companies are too often reluctant to face: Their enormous power means they have an obligation to try to anticipate the potential impact of anything they produce.
“The dirty little secret of highly accomplished people is what we’ve had to neglect to achieve that,” says Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and one of the creators of the multitouch interface. “To become spectacular at any discipline in technology means you’re not well-equipped to address these questions.”
There are countless examples of this failure from the past year alone, from successful Russian influence campaigns across social media to Tesla’s too-aggressive rollout of autopilot technology.
#2 ‘Invention is the mother of necessity.’
Yes, that’s backward from the way you remember it. It means “every technical innovation seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective,” Prof. Kranzberg wrote.
In our modern world, the invention of the smartphone has led to the necessity for countless other technologies, from phone cases to 5G wireless. Apple’s cure for staring at your phone too much? A smartwatch to glance at 100 times a day.
#3 ‘Technology comes in packages, big and small.
To understand any part of a technological package requires looking at its interaction with and dependency on the rest of it, Prof. Kranzberg wrote—including the human beings essential to how it functions. While innovation destroys jobs, it also creates countless new ones.
Steel, oil and rail were the package of technologies that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in America, just as the internet, mobile phones and wireless connectivity are transforming the 21st century.