Whose code counts? The Future Implications of Technological Abundance

Futurist Roy Amara once observed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. This quotation, which came to be known as “Amara’s Law”, seems to hold true as one ponders the implications of the increasing technological profusion of our world, where connectivity and accessibility continuously proliferate. The Internet was (and still is) heralded as the great flattener, and yet systemic inequality still seems to be the defining characteristic of our world. To understand why Amara’s Law can be a useful future heuristic for thinking about the relationship between technological change and international development, consider the following two examples:

Example 1: Access to academic knowledge

The Internet provides the perfect knowledge sharing and distribution platform, yet the true potential for a revolution in academic openaccessknowledge production and sharing (despite the growing popularity of the Open Access movement) continues to be hamstrung by the regulatory hegemony of aging knowledge distribution business models conceived – and were valuable and important – in a world that pre-dates the Internet. Herein lies the rift between what could be and what is, as evident in the first half of Amara’s observation. We have the technological tools, platforms and infrastructure necessary to revolutionise how knowledge is created, shared and accessed, yet our business models and intellectual property legislation are lagging. Technology’s fullest potential is not being realised. The promise of an egalitarian ethos of knowledge starkly contrasts with the current reality.  Stanford scholar Lawrence Lessig’s observations on the legislative properties of code (software), especially with respect to copyright law, ring true.

Example 2: 3D Printing

3d_printing

Low cost prosthetics made possible by 3D printing. Image credits: http://www.rapidreadytech.com/2014/01/3d-printing-brings-prosthetics-to-africa

There is a quiet revolution happening in how we design and create things, and it is called 3D printing, which is the process of creating a physical model from a digital file. The technology itself is not very new, but the cost of making and buying 3D printers has massively gone down in recent years. The implications of this for democratising innovation are enormous. There is already talk of 3D printed housing for rapid-response to disaster stricken areas, and the technology is already helping people in developing countries create innovative solutions to meet their local needs at very low costs. For Sci-Fi fans, we are one step closer to Star Trek’s famous replicator. The barriers of prohibitive cost and access to tools for creativity and innovation are collapsing rapidly. In a way, we are indeed living in the future and we’re not even noticing. When it comes to 3D printing, the second half of Amara’s Law holds true.

Critically investigating the promise of Digital Abundance

The above two examples in relation to Amara’s Law bring us to the following question: How can we conceive of the social, economic and political implications of an exponentially accelerating pace of technological change in a hyper-connected world? Our laws and regulations as well as values and ethical considerations evolve much slower than technology, and thus gaps emerge between technology’s potential and the extent to which this potential is realised in ways that provide tangible and measurable benefits to people around the world, especially the most marginalised. We could pose this question differently: What are the parameters necessary for understanding our future of computational and technological abundance? As digital networking and ubiquitous computing permeate politics, economics and culture, new forms of power are normalised. The late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz cogently noted that “On the Internet everybody is entitled to speak, the question is: Who gets Heard?” In a world where (immaterial) software has significant (material) consequences, which define who gets heard, who produces knowledge and under what assumptions, not only do we have to engage in critical examinations of the realities that shape processes of development, but we also need to ask: Whose Code Counts?

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