How do we know it will be better this time

Yesterday in my class, I showed the video on globalization and technology. One student wondered if people in 1900 might have similar optimism about the future and how they would use technology for the betterment of human race. This is a great point that made me think.

The modernistic utopian view of technology that came out from the industrial revolution was shattered by two world wars, atomic bombs, Cold War, pollution, new disease, urban slums, and most recently global warming. Such realization led to the rise of post-modern philosophy and much more cautious (if not critical) approaches to technology to solve our problems.

The reality is that, whether we like it or not, there are people who keep pushing the edge of the technology. And, with the continuing development of digital technologies, we now have the second chance (not the Second Life). Efforts like Massive Change by Bruce Mau, Collective Intelligence at MIT, and We Are Smarter than Me are some of the examples where we are trying to get it right this time around.

What’s different now? There is a much wider recognition that informed collectives can make better decisions than a small group of smart individuals who have monopolistic access to information. Radical reduction of communication cost through the use of modern information technology have made it much less costly to share information among many and to coordinate among those informed individuals. Whereas the modernistic organizations used technology to empower the small elite in organizations, these new attempts are to inform distributed many.

Second, such distributed intelligence enabled by large scale information technology will allow us to envision new organizing forms that can address the needs that arise from the Long Tail Phenomenon. Whereas the modernistic organizations used technology to support organizing forms for mass production, these new attempts are to support extreme niche markets.

Finally the rapid digitization of physical world obliterate the traditional boundaries across the industries. Digitized information can be stored, transformed, decoupled, and re-coupled in many different ways. Whereas modernistic organizations attempt to use technology in order to separate the real world from the virtual world and technology world from social world, these attempts are to mix them to create a new forms of world that are neither real nor virtual, social nor technical.

So the question is, how are we going to use these new resources for a better future? How can we promote new forms of organizing that are more desirable through design, experiments, and education? How can we put these new resources into work to save the earth, remove poverty and reinvent the cities? What can we do differently so that the future with new technologies will not be the repeat of what we did in the last century? To me, that is a design question that is worthy of one’s whole carrier.


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Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University
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One thought on “How do we know it will be better this time

  1. I think your idea is worth many lives, and this is not just a design idea… I attend the MIT CCI talks and have begun to think about building open source ideas/solutions spaces and “commons”-like exchanges to find business solutions to the problem of poverty. I cannot think of a better application of crowdsourcing to harvest such solutions and put people in touch with entrepreneurs who know how to do it. I know from a recent press release that Innocentive is starting to broadcasts poverty-related problems and crowdsource for solutions to poverty, so these ideas are beginning to converge!

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