As we race ever faster into the future, Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of MIT's Technology Review, takes pause with Marcus Costello to reflect on the nature of progress.
Marcus | We live in a hyper-connected age. And yet, I wonder if technology is driving a wedge between so-called ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. Do you feel digital literacy is emerging as a kind of class determinant?
Jason | The fear of the digital divide emerged when digital devices were prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, the value of these devices depreciates so quickly that relatively high-tech devices are within the means of many of the world’s poor. Mobile phones have allowed an entire generation of Africans to engage in online banking.
To that end, I think the divide is not so much between rich and poor but old and young. I worry about older generations accommodating themselves to new technologies – especially as the retirement age continues to increase.
There’s research indicating that poorer communities in the US are, in fact, the most enthusiastic users of technology. The two groups who use social media most are African Americans and Hispanics – I found this surprising. Partly the reason is because these groups are more likely to be underemployed and so they turn to social media to occupy their time.
That doesn’t really surprise me. Passive consumption of television is also highest in those groups. While it might be “enthusiastic engagement with technology”, hours spent on social media and a preparedness to engage with new technology are two very different things.
Fair call. What I mean is that I worry less about equal access to technology and more about equal access to the education required to best utilize that technology. A skill like coding, which is becoming increasingly important, is difficult and requires a high level of logic and maths – skills not even most college graduates have!
Indeed. Access to education is always disconcerting – the role technology plays exacerbating or alleviating this will be very interesting to watch. What new technology disconcerts you most?
Well, any new technology that is genuinely radical should disconcert us. There’s an old line that’s worth remembering - it’s not a revolution if someone doesn’t lose. What’s most disconcerting, I would contend, are developments in the biological realm. We can now sequence the entire genome of a foetus. Very soon this procedure will be affordable to a mass market, and this disconcerts me. We need to rigorously question the use of pre-natal DNA sequencing. Is it the right of new parents to decide whether to abort based on the probability of birth defects or strength of intelligence or even male patent baldness [strokes his shiny head and chuckles]. The problem is, the technology will always emerge ahead of the bio-ethics.
We’re also very close to developing prostheses that will allow us to remain memorious late into life and perhaps even generate different memories altogether.
Socrates was concerned that writing would atrophy our capacity for memory. I wonder what he’d make of artificially enhanced memory? [laughs] Of course, Socrates’ concern is an example of needlessly fearing change.
[laughs] Well, I truly think in the next 20 years, what it means to be human will alter. If we’re talking about technology creating divides, when it comes to access to biotechnology we might even see actual species bifurcation.
But what about Donna Harroway’s A Cyborg Manifesto – the ultimate advance of feminism is a new humanism?
Ha! Well, look, I have my doubts but really I’m an optimist. I firmly believe that technology is morally neutral and science is an absolute good - it’s how we apply what we know that calls for proper consideration.
Which makes me think, how should we define progress?
Hmm. I can answer that by saying what I believe constitutes a regressive use of technology. Anything that isolates power is regressive. We live in a hyper-social age and we should be exploring how technology can further democratic processes in all areas of life.
The only way we can know how and when to move forward with new technologies is to discuss and explore how technology can be abused and how it can enrich our lives. In short, to do what Technology Review does! [laughs]
Well now I’m allowed to shamelessly plug how Amplify Festival brings people together from around the world to do exactly that!
And that’s precisely why I’m very much looking forward to coming. You know, it’s so refreshing to be invited to an ideas festival that doesn’t only talk about the commercial potential of new technologies, as so many American events tend to do. Take Facebook, for example. I’m interested in exploring how Facebook can be used for revolutionary purposes by looking at its role in the Arab Spring and what China has to fear. The real power of Facebook is not lessons for being the next Zuckerberg – only one person can gain from that – but expanding Facebook to China where a billion people might gain.
If crowd funding, as you predict, is the future of funding, should AMP, Australia’s leading wealth management fund, be trembling in its boots?
I don’t think AMP needs to be too concerned. The potential is, rather, for a much larger number of alternative ventures to be funded effectively. Crowd funding can provide opportunities for projects that would never be touched by conventional venture capitalists or investment banks.
In the 80s and 90s working on Wall Street was cool. With the rise of the internet, establishing start-ups became the coolest way to do business. How much longer do you see this trend lasting?
Well, we’re certainly in some kind of bubble. And when bubbles burst there can be a flight. In terms of tech trends, first came the dotcom bubble, which burst in a rather dramatic fashion and after a period of panic and depression we arrived at where we are now in the social media start-up bubble. I imagine the next big growth areas for entrepreneurism will be in biotech and energy. I also foresee growth beyond traditional centres of information technology. We spoke earlier about the groundswell of mobile devices amongst Africans. Well, I think Africa could be a centre for the third tech wave: mobile technology.
Speaking about waves, with the rise of apps and the social web, start-ups are sprouting up faster than ever. But it seems the business model is to grow only so big then sell the IP to one of the few big fish in the pond. Do you see a future where the big fish (Facebook, Google, Apple, et al) corner the market but operate using differentiated brands similar to the way the globalised food industry is controlled by a small number of manufactures?
You’re absolutely right picking up on that. It seems to follow the monetising model established by biotech. The thing is, very few biotech companies are profitable in and of themselves. The business model has been to create some IP and then sell the company to another company that has cash flow. Inside the valley [Silicon Valley] they refer to companies that follow this model not as businesses but as ‘features’. The most noted example of this is, of course, Instagram’s $1b ‘flip’ to Facebook after just 18 months on the market. This is not a good sign. True visionaries think how to change the way we live and think, not how to cash-in on fads.