Why technology needs the friction of politics

google logoA version of this post first appeared on The Guardian’s Political Science blog.

The headquarters of Google in Mountain View, California is a confusing blend of the laid back, hi-tech, over achieving image the company likes to cultivate, mixed with an earnest schoolboy’s slightly clumsy eagerness to gain approval for doing well and doing good. Garish multi-coloured bikes are scattered around the ‘campus’ for staff to move from one building to another; there’s a Holodeck (a dizzyingly immersive experience of Google Earth); and two of the meeting rooms are called Flux and Capacitor. So far, so Google.

But the company, which Forbes lists as the world’s third most valuable brand after Apple and Microsoft, and whose revenues are mostly earned through selling advertising, appears to have a bizarre urge to communicate a sense of its materiality. The campus features a visitor centre, still ‘in beta,’ whose designers had the difficult task of assembling objects to depict the history of a corporation that mostly deals in bits rather than atoms. The objects include a fascinating graph tracking Google searches over time, a nap pod, and a reconstruction of a Google office, which looks like… an office. Weirder still is the sculpture garden, a patch of grass occupied by several large Android statues, one for each dessert-themed version of the operating system. While surprisingly naff, they are apparently popular with snap-happy tourists.

I found myself on campus as a participant at Science Foo, organised by Google in partnership with O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the journal Nature. It was an ‘unconference’, a weekend gathering of 250 illustrious people, mostly from the science and technology communities, who volunteer to lead sessions on any topic they find interesting. The idea is to create a setting where disciplines and ideas can collide and spark innovation. There are few rules: you must be extrovert, even if you’re an introvert; you should seek out topics you know nothing about; and tweeting and blogging is discouraged, as the emphasis is on experiencing, rather than recording. The result is a full on, exhilarating geekfest, with discussions on everything from autism to counterfactual universes.

The difference between scientists and technologists
It turns out there’s a marked difference in outlook between that of the science crowd – the astrophysicists, marine biologists and psychologists – and those in the tech sector, running or investing in successful companies. In general, the scientists I met were pessimistic. They’re pessimistic about a lot of things: about the future of the planet; about the public’s understanding of science; about the integrity of the institution of science and the quality of knowledge it generates; about the dangerous combination of powerful computers and big data (when it’s easy to run the same model 20 times and then report the single time when p>0.05); and about their own careers, working on furthering a sub-sub-field of knowledge, while the world tears itself apart.

The technologists, on the other hand, are optimistic. They are excited about a future in which you could upload your brain to the internet, live on other planets and use drones for ecological research. They muse about whether artificially intelligent beings will require an education in morality, or whether good governance structures will be sufficient. The entrepreneurs who’ve built the likes of Google and Skype see only goodness in their creations, and they extend this logic to technology in the abstract. They’re connecting people like never before and bringing instant information to everyone’s fingertips, building a digital world bursting with potential to create yet more tools for enhancing our lives. The only problem they face is friction: the constraints of the material world, such as geography, regulations and our frustratingly slow human brains, which impede the digital world’s inevitable advances.

Seeing climate change as a market failure
The tech geeks’ spiralling successes give them the confidence – and resources – to take on some of the world’s largest problems: poverty, climate change, meteor collision (one guy assured me it would be fairly straightforward to shift Earth sideways in space to avoid a head-on crash, if necessary). Such problems are generally framed in a way that leads logically to technological, entrepreneurial solutions. Climate change is recast as a massive market failure in transgenerational goods, requiring a more sophisticated alignment of financial incentives. Humanity’s reluctance to tackle global environmental problems can be pinned down to cognitive biases, begging the question of how our thought processes can be optimised.

These conversations left me feeling that my field of work, politics, is bewilderingly low tech, with friction all over the place. How does anything ever get done? We still write physical letters to ministers, sending them via the postal service, for goodness’ sake.

New technology has always made people nervous, from nineteenth century Luddites aghast at job losses, to environmentalists worried about the effect of nanoparticles in the human body. Yuval Harari recently warned that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in biotechnology, with our very existence progressively entwined with computers. Yet most of us are blind to this trajectory and have not paused to consider the consequences. Pages of science fiction have for years depicted technology’s dark side, and the terrible impacts that our hubris can inflict on ourselves and our environment. ‘Ex Machina’ is the latest film to portray one such cautionary tale.

Friction can be useful
But technological development also makes people’s lives better. It certainly has a role in solving humanity’s problems. Smallpox has been eradicated due to successful application of a vaccine. A stable global climate becomes more attainable each time photovoltaic technology leaps forward.

What is needed is a judicious amount of friction.

Friction slows things down. That isn’t an entirely useless property. It allows us to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. It stops my tea mug sliding off my desk. It means our boots grip the ground as we climb mountains. In the case of technological development, friction is the careful, evidence-based evaluation of risks that must take place before each step forward. Rather than take the technologists’ word for it, we should ensure there are forums for a broad range of stakeholders to mull over the ethical, social and environmental implications of each ground-breaking innovation.

Politics might be low tech, but it’s the best process available for making decisions collectively and coming to conclusions that are acceptable to society. And Google’s fumbling attempt to relate to the material world, that visitor centre with its odd statues, gives me the hunch that they’re aware of this necessity too.

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