In the 19th century, American pioneers expanded across the reaches of the American continent. The driving force behind this unstoppable conquest was the belief in America’s Manifest Destiny. Today, as we witness a new technological Manifest Destiny, we must be careful not to repeat the sins of the past.
The Call of Destiny
Manifest Destiny was the belief that America’s unique virtue not only allowed, but obligated, its citizens to expand and tame the American continent. It was followed with an almost zealous fervor by pioneers and settlers pushing the bounds of the United States’ frontier ever further. Manifest Destiny, perhaps more than any other cultural belief, has created the country we know today. It brought immeasurable wealth, resources, and power to what eventually would become the world’s preeminent superpower. This treasure trove of riches was not won without sacrifice. The secondary effects of Manifest Destiny were the displacement of native peoples, the extinction or endangerment of many natural species, and the fundamental altering of America’s environmental landscape. It’s hard to argue that the benefits of Manifest Destiny, at least from America’s perspective, outweighed the cost, but we are fooling ourselves if we ignore that there was a cost. I will leave the debate of whether Manifest Destiny on a whole was positive or negative to history’s scholars, but what is undeniable is that the phenomenon was more complex and nuanced in its ramifications than anyone considered at the time. Manifest Destiny’s effects, good and ill, have reverberated through time and are still felt today. The modern-day Manifest Destiny will have an equally far reach, but will it be for our benefit or our detriment?
Technology’s Manifest Destiny
The modern equivalent of America’s Manifest Destiny is the seemingly unassailable march forward of technology and innovation. Innovation grows at an exponential scale as new discoveries and technologies open up the door for additional breakthroughs. It has become a cliche critique, but I do think there is truth in the idea that we spend so much time asking if something can be done, that we rarely take the time to ask whether it should be done. As we reach new technological frontiers in mobility, automation, and artificial intelligence, we need to start grappling with the very real questions of not only what should be done, but how should it be done.
Don’t mistake me. I am not out to get technology or break up big tech or regulate innovation away. If anything I am the opposite. I genuinely believe that technology and innovation is the driving force behind a tide that raises all boats. I believe that we live in the single greatest period of time in human history and that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.
I write this post not because I distrust technology, but because I believe in it so strongly. Just as the pioneers of 200 years ago did, I have at times found myself a zealot blindly preaching the benefits of the forward progress of technology with little heed towards its potential side effects. This entrenched bias and lack of nuanced view scares me when I see it in myself and it scares me when I see it at large in our community. I love disruption as much as the next guy, but we shouldn’t worship at its altar. Disruption hasn’t always had the positive connotations that it enjoys today (just ask my grade school teachers…). We mustn’t give in to the temptation to simply assume that what we do is “good” and what others do is “bad”. We can’t kid ourselves that just because technology has created unprecedented prosperity that, left to its own devices, it is destined to continue to do so.
We are better than that.
Innovation is a force and just like any other, it is indifferent in its application. The fire does not hate the wood it burns.
Responsibility ultimately lies with those who wield it.
The lack of acknowledging that responsibility is one of the things that scares me most in the world of technology today. There seem to be two camps. On one hand, there are people who believe that tech can do no wrong. That it is not just ultimately a force for good, but unequivocally so. On the other hand, there are those who believe that we are powerless to change the course of innovation for better or worse. That innovation is an unstoppable tide that we must be content to merely keep our heads above water as we are swept away.
I reject both of those arguments.
We should not fall into the same trap that the pioneers of yore did by simply believing that because we can do something that it is good. I will be the first to tell you that I believe that technological progress is on its net, overwhelmingly positive, but to outright ignore its downfalls is a path to disaster.
We are not bystanders who lack sovereignty over our circumstances either. We are creators that can exert their will upon their creation. To argue otherwise is an attempt to dissociate responsibility.
Now look, I don’t have the answers.
But I do know that we need to continue the discourse. We need to have the tough conversations about not just what can be done, but what should be done.
We as a community cannot hide behind platitudes of technology’s greatness. We need to be honest with ourself about innovation’s heights and depths. About its greatness and its shortcomings. Its light and its darkness.
Because if we don’t.