Dieser Blog präsentiert eine Auswahl verschiedener Texte von mir. Die Herangehensweise ist multilingual und interdisziplinär. Die Themen sind international und betreffen vor allem Nachhaltigkeit, Wirtschaft, Politik und soziale Aspekte.
Viel Vergnügen! - JJ Bürger -

Ce blog rassemble une séléction de mes textes. L'approche est plurilingue et interdisciplinaire. Les sujets sont internationaux et concernent notamment la durabilité, l'économie, la politique et certains aspects sociaux. Bonne lecture! - JJ Bürger -

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Disruptive technologies... between euphoria and persisting obstacles

Disruptive technologies... and their limitations


From the "4th Industrial Revolution" to drones and Supercomputers, disruptive trends are today's omnipresent buzzword, evoking possibilities that are or will be transforming our world's social, cultural and economic foundations in unprecedented scale.

Of course, it is crucial to understand the full extent of what these trends imply and the countless profound changes they could signify for the next years and decades. Indeed, we should not allow ourselves to hang on to naive illusions on this matter.

On the other hand though, it should also not be a blasphemy to state that some of these developments really do have certain limitations, and that adding a "digital 2.0"-component to a formerly manual or "digital 1.0" process does not always magically solve all problems.


As Harvard Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma argues, the notion of the "4th Industrial Revolution" is misleading, as it puts a strong focus on changes in the industrial field and, eventually, in the economy. This limited conception neglects other aspects, such as considerable social, medical, environmental or agricultural changes - those could be of vital importance, especially for developing countries, as Juma points out in The Nerve Africa. But in order to seize these opportunities, it is crucial to be aware of them and to use the right terms. That is why Juma rejects most labels and instead calls it "convergence of diverse technological platforms" requiring not just limited ministerial support but "high level champions of innovation, especially presidents and prime ministers"... So as to underline that the ongoing changes and opportunities cannot be confined to only one specific sector.
To very clear: there really are a lot of opportunities and challenges coming our way!

THE (so far still persisting technical) LIMITS OF DISRUPTION

However, even today, technology cannot solve all our problems (yet). As Twitter user @MiraBurg put it: Super fast satellite's web connection: yes, time's still an issue, the internet doesn't make interactions "timeless". Indeed, much innovation was needed to bring the image transmission time from "hours" down to "only" 13 minutes via high-speed satellites. And in everyday life outside of urban centers, even getting a reliable mobile Internet access or just a cellphone signal can be an issue.
In high-frequency financial trading, the distance between IT servers can make a difference of nanoseconds and therefore be decisive for multi-million dollar deals. To stay ahead of the game, you just might have to rocksaw through mountains instead of taking the easy way around them, in order to shorten the cable connection between servers.

We may live in times where Silicon Valley executives want to develop technology that ends all aging or even puts an end to mortality. Even a star DJ like Steve Aoki has his philanthropic Aoki Foundation support biotech research such as SENS, which aims to fight age-related medical conditions. It definitely adds to the interesting contrast between Aoki's public life of spontaneity and party culture and his private life of long term vision, discipline and asceticism. But for now, this is just - even if it was done with an entrepreneurial vision and a philanthropic goal - a risky bet. 
Whether people criticize or applaud these biotech-enthusiasts' optimism: the pill for eternal healthy life for all mankind is (simply and unfortunately) not in store yet.

The "Vitruvian Man" stands for the innovations of the Renaissance and, more specifically, for Leonardo da Vinci's research on the architecture of human life. Photo credits: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be


Not all research is used for medical or social progress though. For example, twitter user @mattdpearce denounces that some supercomputers are used "only" to improve the efficiency of marketing. While it is legitimate for all branches of the economy to use technological progress, the intention of creating "markets of one", with highly personalized user profiles, might irritate some advocates of data protection... depending on how it is done.

As Mira Bürger (yes, the same one as the Twitter user mentioned above) points out in her LSE-paper "Neither Maker not Mirror"*, algorithms are only human-made, too. In her work on algorithms used for credit scoring based on big data, she identifies several ways in which humans influence these algorithms during their conception, their usage and their interpretation. As she argues, this stands in contrast to discourses that depict algorithms either as neutral mirrors of reality or as independently acting, potentially threatening entities. Instead, algorithm-based assessments are only as innovative/inclusive or as biased/discriminating as the humans that control the algorithms. 

* Mira Marie Bürger: Neither Maker nor Mirror. The powers and limitations of algorithms and their relation to human actors in credit scoring. London School of Economics, 2015.


Therefore, what's most decisive is how we design and use technology - after all, our usage does not only determine technology's output today, but it is also driving technology's future evolution. This way, we should focus on how we want to shape the technology and the usages that will shape our society.... Instead of falsely considering them to be either completely neutral or entirely autonomous and self-fulfilling.