There is a tendency with the idea of history that, looking back, we assume things have occurred just as they were always going to. Academics talk about climbing technological ladders and the natural development of ideas and breakthroughs, one after the other. This concept pervades every area of our culture, from games featuring ‘technology trees’ to science-fiction forecasting the wild world of tomorrow as being largely like the world of today, just with a bit more spaceships and chrome. This concept, a sort of technological determinism is borne from a view of technological development as a thing wholly uninfluenced by trends, power, or designs, and serves as a confirmation bias of sorts for the world as it is. Not only does this idea impede our understanding of how technology has changed and continues to do so, but it also stymies innovation and concentrates the flow of progress towards ends that best suit those who hold power in our society.
What conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the focus of technological progress in the fields of telecommunications, data storage, and information transfer has leaped above and beyond that of many other fields? That the demand for economists and students of corporate law is unending, while other job categories stagnate or face poor working conditions and worse salaries? The answer is plain to see: if a significant portion of power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the very few, then the forces of ‘the market’ and ‘technological incentives’ will work towards their specific ends. We may not have space travel, free health care, or universal housing, but we do have cellphones, Zoom calls, and bitcoin. The financialization of technology and design is nothing new, but the degree to which it has seized control over almost all factors of product is something unique to our current era. Risky venture capital schemes and faux-futurist projects can raise billions towards the development of financial software or app-based recreations of existing public services, while vital efforts towards improvements in renewable energies, education, quality-of-life, and more struggle to gain funding. This disparity is not because one effort is more meritorious than the other, but rather because endeavors that serve the ends of power tend to be more successful than ones that don’t. In this way, technology develops most easily along the paths of least resistance, avenues carved by the powerful on their rise to prominence.
The things a society creates reflects its nature. Be it art, design, technology, or otherwise, nothing comes into being devoid of context. A different society from our own would doubtlessly develop different technologies and enjoy different things. The clarity knowledge brings is the ability to recognize the forces at play that influence our lives and the objects and technologies with which we interact. By acknowledging things as a product of an artificial environment, one created by the powerful, we can demystify their origins, and seek to build a better world within the body of the old one.
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