Technology, innovation and society: five myths debunked

Recently, I held a lecture about the digital transformation for the franco-swiss CAS/EMBA program in e-tourism. The tourism industry not being my specialty, and the “social media” aspects having been thoroughly covered by colleagues,Media Technology old and new I had been specifically asked to convey a big picture view.

I chose to address some overall issues related to ICT (information & communication technology), innovation and society by debunking the following five myths:

  1. Ignoring the digital transformation is possible
  2. Technological progress is linear
  3. Connectivity is a given
  4. Virtual vs. “real” life
  5. Big Data – the answer to all our questions

Each of these points would deserve an treatise on its own, and I will not be able to go into much details in the scope of this article. I nevertheless wanted to share some of the links and references mentioned during my lecture and related to these issues. If you prefer reading the whole thing in French, please go to Enjeux technologiques et sociaux: cinq idées reçues à propos du numérique, which is the corresponding (but not literally translated) article in French.

Myth no. 1: Ignoring the digital transformation is possible

While discussions of online social networks have become mainstream, the digital transformation goes way beyond social media. It is about more than visible communication. It is about automation, computation, and algorithms. And as I have written before: algorithms are more than a technological issue because they involve not only automated data analysis, but also decision-making. In 1961 already, C.P. Snow said:

«Those who don’t understand algorithms, can’t understand how the decisions are made.»

In order to illustrate the vastness of computation and algorithmic automation I mentioned Frédéric Kaplan’s information mushroom (“champignon informationnel”), my explorations of Google Autocomplete, as well as the susceptibility of a job to be made redundant in the near future by machine learning and mobile robotics (cf. this scientific working paper, or the interactive visualisation derived from it).

Myth no. 2: Technological progress is linear

This point included a little history including sociology of knowledge and innovation studies.

Starting out with the concept of Fleck’s Denkstil, I referred to Kuhn’s scientific paradigms and Dosi’s technological paradigms, and finally explained the crucial distinction between incremental and radical innovations (cf. Freeman et Perez). A distinction which is perfectly illustrated by this (supposedly) Henry Ford quote:

«If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.»

It is important to keep in mind that a technological innovation cannot be dissociated from a specific social context. As a reminder, I presented the chatbot ELIZA, the reception of its DOCTOR script, and about how our notion of intelligence – human as well as “artificial” – has evolved over time. At hintsight, I realize I could (and maybe should) have spoken about the expression “glasshole”, its stakes and emergence…

Myth no. 3: Connectivity is a given

Internet Cable Map

Internet Cable Map:

Information and communication technology has kept evolving over the last decades. There is no reason to assume evolution is over. On the contrary. Just think of the segregation within the web through “walled gardens”, the widespread success of native mobile application or the commercialization of Top Level Domains.

Recent events invite us to no longer ignore the very infrastructure we rely on for our internet connection. Isn’t this a great occasion to maybe start by reflecting on “net neutrality” (an expression apparently coined by Tim Wu, whose “The Master Switch” is recommended reading) and beyond? Understanding the economic underpinnings and social ramifications of a total vertical integration (pun intended and proudly so!)?

Myth no. 4: Virtual vs. “real” life

In August 2013, a viral video called I Forgot My Phone showed the terrible day of a woman without her phone. Why terrible day? She felt excluded by the people surrounding here who would not stop using theirs. Another viral, more recent video called Look up repeated the same subliminal message, even more explicitely this time: there is the technology-mediated “virtuality”, isolating and/or excluding individuals, and then there is the physical, social reality where our actual ties lie. The sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has not only authored the ultimate take-down of these viral videos, he also coineddigital dualism“, the expression describing the wrongful attitude of considering the virtual and the physical two distinct realities. In his essay about the IRL fetish (IRL being the accronym of “In Real Life”) he insists:

It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real life.

Acknowledging that whatever happens online is real, is part of the same reality as whatever happens offline, doesn’t mean that it is identical. Contexts always matter, online as well as offline. (For a better understanding of how the specific contexts are understood and dealt with, read e.g. Marwick and boyd’s article explaining “context collapse”.

Myth no. 5: Big Data – the answer to all our questions

Please do not understand this as a general “big data bashing” but rather as a reminder not to surrender to naive beliefs.


Post Scriptum:

The structure of this article – “debunking myths” – is inspired by Antonio Casilli. Its content stems from my interdisciplinary background in sociology, economics and information management. No doubt, the combination of these disciplines has proven very useful for understanding current issues. It seems almost weird now how often I had to justify my choice of the “unusual mix of disciplines having no common ground whatsoever” not so long ago… Oh, and last but not least, because I wouldn’t want to be accused of lacking confidence: I am always happy to share my hybrid knowledge, so please do not hesitate to get in touch.


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