The Paradox of technological change

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy

July, 2020

We humans have always been engaged in making our lives better. The ever-changing technological landscape supports this assertion. From our ancestral efforts to make sharper stone tools to our contemporary peers building extraordinary computing machines such as IBM Watson, the stated goals haven't changed much.

However, what has changed is the nature of the technologies we build to address the stated goal. These new-age tools have paradoxical consequences. On the one hand, they seem to improve our lives and, on the other hand, worsen them in specific ways.

Automation is a classic case of such a paradox. Automation refers to a set of tools aimed at reducing human effort in carrying out tasks. From lawnmowers to automatic teller machines (ATM's), all the automation technologies have at the outset improved the efficiency, with which we carry out specific activities like cleaning and cash transactions. However, these automation technologies have also added to our troubles, particularly lawnmowers add to noise pollution, whereas ATM's contribute to joblessness.

The current round of automation with the surge of human-like computing machines driven by sophisticated learning routines (i.e., AI, ML, etc.) take this paradox to greater horizons. One stated intention of this new epoch of automation is to free them of mundane tasks and enable them to spend their energies in more aesthetic and creative pursuits by building machines that can ape-humans. For example, the greater use of industrial robots could free up much of the labor engaged on the shop floor in a traditional manufacturing setting, but then is this workforce even capable of the comfort of leisure, let alone engage in the higher-order pursuits?

Likewise, take the case of technological change in human-to-human communication. Communication technologies from telephones to emails and social media have greatly improved our social lives by keeping track of what's happening with people that matter to us. But they have also been a significant cause of distress either because they let us have greater access to not so appreciable qualities of our loved ones or even worse those of strangers.

Is there a way to resolve this paradox and bring to bear only the good side of technological change? It's a hard question to answer. But yes, there are attempts on the anvil. Technologies like human-in-loop systems, personalized digital media platforms, etc., are aimed at lessening the paradoxical effects of new-age technological change. However, do these technologies also not lend to the contradictory consequences?

About the Author

Dr. G Venkat Ram Reddy is a faculty in the area of Human Capital & Organisational Dynamics at School of Management and Entrepreneurship, IIT Jodhpur.