Monday, April 21, 2008

Is Technological Innovation a Fundamentally Scary Thing?

Guest post by Venkatesh G. Rao, Researcher at Xerox and writer of the www.ribbonfarm.com innovation blog

How do you think technological innovation is perceived? We in the business of innovation often think of our work in uniformly positive terms. It is almost an axiom for us that even with the fundamental dynamics of innovation being that of creative-destruction, innovation overall is good for society as a whole, besides being fun for us.

A little thought shows that we are outliers. The world at large is ambivalent at best, or distrustful or even phobic at worst, when it comes to the wonders of technology. It turns out that we are able to delude ourselves that the world at large loves us because we conflate the perception of science with the perception of technology. It turns out that the former is largely viewed and presented in a positive light by the arbiters of popular culture, while the latter is not. The distinction is particularly stark when you consider movies. Consider this excerpt from an editorial in Nature, from 22nd June, 2006, titled "The Mad Technologist," which teases out this very subtle distinction:

"We find that pure scientists are often treated kindly by film-makers, who have portrayed them sympathetically, as brooding mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind) and heroic archaeologists (Raiders of the Lost Ark). It is technology that movie-makers seem to fear. Even the best-loved science-fiction films have a distinctly ambivalent take on it. Blade Runner features a genetic designer without empathy for his creations, who end up killing him. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers turn against humans, and Star Wars has us rooting for the side that relies on spiritual power over that which prefers technology, exemplified by the Death Star."

There is plenty of other evidence, ranging from the Matrix movies to the metaphoric classic of the nuclear age Godzilla, to the Terminator movies. My favorite example is Real Genius, where Val Kilmer plays a physics prodigy who figures how to make a powerful chemical laser, and then foils an attempt by his evil thesis supervisor and his engineer lackey to use a special mirror to turn the laser into a military weapon. One memorable scene shows Val Kilmer celebrating with his friends after figuring out the physics and getting the laser to work. A friend asks, "what are we going to do with it now?" to which Val Kilmer's character replies, "we'll let the engineers figure that out!"

Such perceptions may fade in the next decade, as the most technology-friendly generation enters the workplace, or perhaps they won't -- perhaps technology is, by its very nature, something humans view, at a primal level, as something alien and something to be feared. What do you think?

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