Working backward

If you want to explain the benefits of electricity, you don’t start with the design of an electrical outlet, or the way electrical networks are organized. Instead, you might talk about the benefits of refrigeration, air conditioning or electric lights.

We have a similar obligation when talking about a future technology. We should not start with how it works, but rather with the impacts it will have.

This is generally not easy, since a technology can change lots of things, particularly when combined with other technologies.

For example, Uber and Lyft required both Smartphones and affordable geolocation. To make a proper prediction about those services, you would have needed to anticipate several different technologies.

But the principle remains: in order to properly talk about the impact of future technologies, you need to work backwards: first understand the potential impact, and only then move on to details about how the thing works.

One thought on “Working backward”

  1. I generally agree, but sometimes the details of how a technology works affects or limits its impact.

    For example, it’s often claimed that computer-driven cars will improve the flow of city traffic by eliminating the need for traffic lights–the electronic drivers could coordinate amongst themselves to avoid collisions at intersections by making small adjustments to speed rather than stopping and waiting for a less-intelligent external coordinator (the traffic light). But that overlooks the fact that “smart” cars will likely have to share the roads and intersections with pedestrians, cyclists, stray animals and some types of vehicles that might not be worth automating. But suppose we ban non-networkable users from certain roads and intersections (itself an impact of a technological detail). The details of how we secure those machines to prevent modifications (e.g., to give a certain user an advantage in intersection negotiation, or to create havoc) will have legal and social impact that’s hard to predict.

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