2012-06-12

Co.Exist

The Fight To Harness Emerging Technologies To Improve The World

We’re entering a new age in which countries, cities, corporations, and online communities all compete and collaborate to find the best and most advantageous uses of technology to benefit their constituents. Can we devise strategies to maximize the upside of technology while minimizing the downside?

This is an excerpt from Hybrid Reality, a new e-book by Ayesha and Parag Khanna from TED Books. You can purchase it here.

The word “technology” combines the Greek tekhne and logos, symbolizing that technology, like language, is as intrinsic to the human condition as speech. Language, though, does not stand alone; it is part of a larger cultural system. Hence the German word Technik, which denotes not only technologies themselves, but also the skills and processes surrounding them. A century ago, leading Western philosophers appreciated the promise and peril of mass industrialization technologies. Oswald Spengler’s Der Mensch und die Technik: Beitrag zu einer Philosophie des Lebens (1931) proposed to integrate technology into a philosophy of life, arguing that Technik is a process that unites our economic, political, educational and cultural systems. The American sociologist Lewis Mumford, in his Technics and Civilization (1934), emphasized that technology must be more than just objects seen as ends in themselves (monotechnics); it must be a collection of ideas and methods that improve society (polytechnics). Technik unites the scientific and mechanical dimensions of technology (determinism) with a necessary concern for its effect on humans and society (constructivism). Technik, then, is the technological quotient of civilization.

Whereas geotechnology is about power, Technik is about adaptability. We live and die by our Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies to improve our circumstances. How does our culture deal with the distribution of technology? Can we devise strategies to maximize the upside of technology while minimizing the downside? Instead of West vs. East and democracies vs. dictatorships, actors ranging from cities to diasporas to corporations to cloud communities will compete and collaborate to attain Technik.

A more accurate map of global power, influence, and connectedness would include a wide range of countries (orange), cities (blue), companies (yellow), and communities or other types of organizations (green), all of whom can form ties directly with each other. Design by Michell Zappa.

Science fiction author William Gibson’s famous quip that the future is already here but unevenly distributed is the quintessential encapsulation of the fact that we differ in our stages of Technik. In a world of such diverse political forms—democracies, monarchies, authoritarian states—the “war of ideas” will never be won. Instead, we will increasingly differentiate societies on the basis not of their regime type or income, but of their capacity to harness technology. Societies that continuously upgrade their Technik will thrive.

When standards of living are so perpetually threatened by technological shifts, shouldn’t Technik be a factor in evaluating societal stability? The contrast between the U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI) and the reigning obsession with per capita GDP illustrates just how important it is to develop a more neutral, long-term-focused metric for progress. Many wealthy societies have low human-development scores (e.g., Arab petro-states), while China’s score is rising quickly even as its per capita income remains modest. We should layer on technology-focused criteria as well, such as the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (NRI), which assesses the quality of individual access, government regulation, and business investment along more than 50 indicators. Not surprisingly, Sweden, Singapore and Finland are at the top, but interestingly, technocratic China scores higher than democratic India, and India higher than Italy. Good Technik requires a combination of the attributes that deliver high human development, economic growth, political inclusiveness and technology preparedness.

Which societies display the best Technik today? Given the high proportion of Asian leadership with science, engineering and math backgrounds, and their countries’ export-led growth creating sizable surpluses, it is no surprise that first Japan, and then Korea and China, have invested so heavily in infrastructure to catch up with—and potentially surpass—the West.

Japan’s technology obsession and idiosyncratic social traits make it a fascinating case study of the early Hybrid Age. Japan already has 38 of the top 50 cities ranked by speed of Internet connection. Its resilience as a society is demonstrated by its ability to rebound from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, keeping supply chains intact and rebuilding coastal communities. More broadly, Japanese society has embraced robots to such an extent that it seems to prefer a man-machine hybrid civilization to an ethnically mixed one. Robots are increasingly employed in building homes, caring for the elderly, and even entertaining the masses—witness Hatsune Miku’s sold-out holographic concerts.

But there are costs to such a rapid embrace of robots: Males unable to meet traditional expectations become alienated and retreat into Internet addiction and virtual companionship, accelerating a decline in the birthrate. If any country becomes the first to feature human and robot citizens fruitfully co-creating a new hybrid culture, it is likely to be Japan—but it needs to make sure there are enough humans there to enjoy it.

Singapore, once a colonial swamp governed from India, is today a seamlessly efficient cosmopolitan world capital of finance and, increasingly, innovation. Indeed, the lack of natural resources has made it an innovator in the most (un)expected areas, from fuel refining to water desalination. Now its Biopolis and Fusionopolis complexes aim to capture the edge in life sciences and immersive media. Peter Schwartz likes to call Singapore “the best-run company in the world,” and indeed it is the leading role model in city-state Technik for entities from Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Kuala Lumpur. It must, however, evolve its political and educational systems to ensure that its own people are innovating in addition to all the talent it imports.

Finland, the so-called “open-source nation,” is a leading Western example of Technik. Finland’s sophisticated population has embraced the digital life and pioneered mobile technology (Nokia) and an open-source operating system (Linux). In Helsinki, mobile phones are as much for banking and street navigation as for communication. In no other country does one so strongly feel that a mobile phone is part of one’s identity. It cannot be the weather that has earned the country the second position worldwide in the United Nations World Happiness Report.

Israel presents another example of rising Technik. Not only has it made major investments in biotechnology and other strategic sectors, but for several years its Chief Scientist gave out nonrecourse loans to more than 4,000 startups. Rwanda, Mongolia, and many other nations are seeking to copy Israel’s blueprint as the “startup nation.” Technology will long outlast the United States as Israel’s key ally.

Even a country still as overwhelmingly poor as India can elevate its Technik. Its mobile-phone penetration rate is skyrocketing, a biometric national identity card scheme is gradually delivering rights and services to hundreds of millions of previously disenfranchised citizens, digital kiosks in dusty villages are spreading access to information and education, and a sophisticated Right to Information Act requires publishing all laws on the Internet. Parts of India such as its tech hub, Bangalore, represent the leap from an agricultural to a service economy in a single generation.

The United States is home to some of the key pioneers of Technik, whose innovations help society adapt to the future—yet it struggles to keep first-mover advantage over their innovations. Semiautonomous government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have invented technologies—from the World Wide Web to robotic exoskeletons—that eventually gained widespread application. However, the U.S. share of global R&D, like global GDP, has fallen to around 20%, and since not enough of those funds are devoted to commercialization initiatives, the United States sometimes has to buy things it invented a decade ago from competitors abroad. Fortunately for America, it is still home to most of the world’s “silicon superpowers”: IBM, Google, Cisco, Apple, Microsoft and more. Those companies’ hardware and software platforms are the foundation for almost endless innovation by diverse users worldwide, a contribution no Europeans or Asians can match. Technik is big business: Led by American ingenuity, we are entering the age of the $1 trillion corporation—and the first to cross the mark probably won’t be one of the usual suspects but a manufacturer of 3-D printers that allow anyone to turn virtual designs into physical objects.

IBM is perhaps the leading example of how firms themselves should perpetually seek to upgrade their Technik. Having spun off its hardware production divisions over the past decade, IBM now invests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, clean energy and devices for high-tech health care. As a globally integrated enterprise with almost 500,000 employees worldwide (including 100,000 in India alone), it is also a de facto leader in spreading Technik to other societies. For its part, Apple exhibits the clever trait of creativity with control, bringing large swaths of humanity into its exclusive orbit of products and interfaces. Its $100 billion in cash outstrips the GDP of more than 100 individual countries. Apple products are undeniably one of America’s most coveted exports.

Even companies in traditional sectors can demonstrate enormous staying power and Technik by diversifying businesses, exploring new markets and hedging risk. For example, super-major oil companies such as BP and Chevron are among the leading investors in clean energy, and Coca-Cola and McDonald’s own a growing share of the health food sector. Large players constantly “spin in” dynamic newcomers, incorporating their innovations and modifying their business models to stay on top.

The struggle to attain Technik could become the new global class struggle: those whose wages and quality of life benefit from technology versus those perpetually lagging behind prevailing standards. In the new global class struggle, there would be no clear geographic boundaries such as North and South, since the disparities of Technik exist—and could widen—both across and within nations and cities. Technik is therefore a quality we must all strive for: whether as individuals, companies, communities, cities or countries.

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