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This seminar explores the concept of technology disruption, covering the two fundamental ingredients needed for a meaningful understanding: a theoretical basis and evidence. The implications of technology progress are discussed, including the externalised costs and unintended consequences. Economics is used to analyse aggregate preferences, while considerations such as speed, scale and precision are discussed to determine the desirability of a technology. Finally, cost is considered to identify traits of disruptive technologies.
This seminar will discuss the concept of a science of technology disruption and the criteria needed for it to be meaningful. Two fundamental ingredients are needed: a theoretical basis and a body of evidence. Technology has advanced over human history, measuring its power in terms of speed, scale and precision with which we can manipulate matter, energy and information. Deciding if a change is an improvement requires consideration of these factors, as well as any unintended consequences from the use of technology. The seminar will explore these ideas, and further questions will be asked.
Technology has had both intended and unintended consequences, with externalised costs such as environmental or social costs. Economics has much to say about these issues, but an expansive concept of 'toll' is needed to capture the full range of implications. Technology progress is measured in terms of effectiveness, unintended consequences and error, and it is important to consider time and the environment. Technology has advanced significantly, with weapons becoming increasingly destructive. It is important to consider multiple dimensions when evaluating a technology, and the social consensus around it to determine if it is beneficial or not.
Nuclear weapons are seen as undesirable due to their potential to cause changes in the world. However, some may view them as desirable under certain circumstances, depending on their goals and values. Nuclear weapons are seen as a deterrent, and money is invested in them, but it is difficult to incorporate the dynamics of geopolitics into a scientific model of technology adoption. Values seem unavoidable, but simplifying conditions and assumptions are needed to make progress. This same problem is seen in other scientific disciplines, such as medicine, where it is difficult to define acceptable outcomes.
Economics can be used to analyse aggregate preferences and identify traits of disruptive technologies. People make choices based on a model of their decision making, which can include desirability as a factor. Popular disruptive technologies might have properties such as speed, scale, precision, and unintended consequences. Cost is also an important factor to consider, and economists take into account discounting future returns, opportunity cost, and other forms of cost.
This seminar is about understanding what a science of technology disruption might look like and what criteria would need to be met for it to be meaningful. Two fundamental ingredients are needed: a theoretical basis and a body of evidence. This could include a theoretical framework and a retrospective and prospective set of observations. With these two pieces in place, the endeavor can be seen as scientific. The seminar will discuss these ideas, and further questions will be asked to explore them.
Technology is a form of knowledge or know-how, but it can be difficult to distinguish between a change and an improvement. To decide if a change is an improvement, one must consider the speed, scale and precision with which the knowledge can transform the world. This is the bedrock assumption that must be clear to avoid making implicit assumptions. A few ideas have been proposed to help understand this concept better.
Technology has advanced over human history, measuring its power in terms of speed, scale and precision with which we can manipulate matter, energy and information. Whether these transformations are desirable is often subjective, and there can be unintended consequences from the use of technology. This is particularly true in environmental issues, where technology is often blamed.
Technology has both intended and unintended consequences, and often externalised costs such as environmental or social costs. The concept of 'cost' is too limiting and should be replaced with 'toll', which encompasses the idea of foregone opportunities, the value of time, and other aspects of technology. Economics has a lot to say about these issues, but a very expansive concept of 'toll' is needed to capture the full range of implications of technology.
Technology progress and efficiency can be measured in terms of effectiveness, unintended consequences and error. Time is an important factor to consider, as some consequences may not be immediately apparent. The environment is also a key factor, as damage may not become manifest for a long time. There is a need to define the phenomenon of technology progress, yet there is a lack of explicit discussion or rigorous attempts to do so in the literature.
Technology has advanced significantly over the past 150 years, with weapons becoming increasingly destructive. It is possible for a disruption to occur without improving the technology, and it is important to consider multiple dimensions when evaluating a technology. Nuclear weapons are an example of a technology that is more advanced on one metric, yet not an improvement on many others. It is necessary to consider the social consensus around a technology to determine if it is beneficial or not.
Nuclear weapons are seen as undesirable due to the changes they can impose on the world. However, some individuals or groups may view them as desirable under certain circumstances. To accurately predict human behavior, it is necessary to model their goals and values. This is a different question to whether nuclear weapons are desirable or not, as their presence and non-use can also have an effect. Ultimately, it is the states of the world that nuclear weapons bring about through their use that make them undesirable.
Nuclear weapons are often seen as a deterrent, and the money invested in them suggests they must be doing something, but it is difficult to incorporate the dynamics of geopolitics into a scientific model of technology adoption. Value-laden terms make it difficult to make a strong case that technology can be value neutral, even in principle. Although values seem unavoidable, simplifying conditions and assumptions are needed to make progress. This same problem is seen in other scientific disciplines, such as medicine, where it is difficult to define what is and isn't an acceptable outcome.
It is difficult to define disruption and its effects, but we should not be discouraged from attempting to measure and define it. Desirability may be an instrumental part of the models used to understand behavior and choice in markets, but it is not a fundamental factor. People make choices based on a model of their decision making, and desirability can be included in this model. Aggregated preferences manifest at a different level, and cost may not be the only factor that affects the sum of choices people make.
Economics can be used to analyse aggregate preferences and identify traits of disruptive technologies. People are making choices, and it is possible to hypothesise certain properties that popular disruptive technologies might have, such as how fast they work, what scale they work at, how precise they are, and the extent to which they have unintended consequences. Cost is an important factor to consider, and economists think of things like discounting future returns, opportunity cost, and other forms of cost.
The speaker suggests considering the idea of disruption science as a sub-discipline within economics, but wants to challenge the assumption first. They point out that economics fails to capture important social, ecological and other external impacts. They suggest that it is important to make sure that the right framing, language and preconceptions are being brought to the idea, and that economics should not be assumed to be the right choice without serious consideration.
oh thanks everybody um and i do apologize again thank you for your for your patience um so following on from last time um i i i will i'll continue the same pattern which is to sort of direct the the this seminar with the series of questions um with the intention of it to be really an open conversation with the game of understanding uh what a science of technology disruption might look like what it might entail and the sort of things we would need to know uh we that those sort of things we we would need to define um and the sort of criteria we would need to meet in order for a science of technology disruption to be meaningful and um in any in any uh sort of uh clear intellectual sense first of all and then and then i suppose along with that at a practical sense um so uh in the spirit of that i've got a few questions that i'd like to organize this this seminar around and uh this will i don't i felt like we moved a little slowly last time and maybe a bit off a bit more than i could chew for the time that we have and so i've i've only got um well i've got a smaller set of questions tonight and hopefully we'll be able to um to dig into them and they can spill over into next time as well if that's necessary um but uh just as a reminder for what we were talking about last time we were asking you know if if we have a science of technology disruption uh and we're thinking about what that would entail sort of two two fundamental ingredients seem to be necessary at least in my mind uh uh on uh on number one on the one hand we need some sort of theoretical basis some sort of theory some sort of theoretical framework within which to to seek good explanations for the phenomena that we're interested in and then on the other hand number two we need some way to observe the phenomena we need some body of evidence that that we can point to either retrospectively and there's i think quite a large historical body of evidence that we can look to um and then in the present moment and looking out into the future are there observations we can make now and predictions of future observations that we can make um that will add to a preponderance of evidence and with those two pieces key pieces together um then i think we can start to you know be standing on some some relatively firm ground as far as the claim of um this being a scientific endeavor so that's the uh that's that's just a very high level um uh picture of where i think uh we were coming from last time we had some some some nuanced discussion about
a lot of the details that are there what i thought i would ask following on from that today to start with is um what is technological improvement or advancement or progress so last time we we the things that we discussed was okay well if if we accept this definition that i've proposed of technology itself being a form of knowledge or know-how um a great uh question and if you have to forgive me i can't i don't exactly recall who posed it but somebody poses a great question which is um uh how do we know what the difference is between an improvement versus just a change because not all changes are improvement so if we're talking about a change in knowledge or if we're talking about a um the usage for example of a set of practical knowledge a set of know-how a bunch of tools or a a one or more technologies any any one of these ways of looking at it will do if we've got a suite of tools or technologies that we're using and then we switch we make a change to another set of technologies or suite of technologies or tools um how do we how do we decide whether or not change is an improvement how do we know whether the the new knowledge that that has um uh come into hand if that is is is better in any meaningful way and um it was interesting that this is this is you know it's it's it's the kind of bedrock of uh uh uh assumption that we need to be clear about because it's easy to have to to fail to make an explicit assumption and instead make an implicit assumption and not realize that you're doing so and of course that's that can be a a real problem so um i thought that was that would be the the first thing to kind of start thinking about here so i've got a couple i'll let me kick it off here with a few thoughts on that topic and then um let's just open it to discuss to that first question to discussion but let me let me let me put up pose a few things here um and uh i don't know if it's i don't know if it's even worth me putting on the board maybe this must be putting on the board so i'll write them on here real quickly just so they're they're they're up there um so these are just these are just some some relatively straightforward ideas of mine um uh but uh the first is something to do with um the speed scale and precision um sorry for the handwriting my uh my stylus is not working i don't know why i'm also i'm stuck with my fingertips so it's a little clemsy i apologize so something to do with with knowledge allowing us to to um uh transform the world around us with speed scale and precision being
meaningful metrics something some i think that that's relevant that that if we look at technological advancement over the long arc of human history we can immediately look to these kind of measures as uh guiding us to to what is a better or a or a more powerful technology compared to a worse or more primitive or less powerful technologies something to do with the speed and the scale and the precision with which we can manipulate um the world around us and by by the world around us i basically mean matter energy and information and if anybody else has a better suggestion for sort of the basic constituents of of the physical world um or if i've missed something let me know but those seem pretty fundamental to me matter matter energy information manipulating them with uh and measuring or evaluating those manipulations in terms of speed scale and precision um and that as a result of those manipulations executing transformations of reality from one state to another state and so that's that's sort of the first set this the the the second thing to think about is um uh are these transformations desirable this is this is uh i don't know how to make this objective um so we may simply have to grant that human beings get to decide what is desirable that may be that may be something that that isn't worth our time getting bogged down and into the weeds about um but it's certainly some it's something that came up last time and it's definitely a valid thing to think about a valid thing to ask right are the changes that we're talking about they desirable whether or not we could execute them into what's you know with what scale of being precision and so forth are are the the changes that we're making transformations of reality that we're making are they are they desirable um and are they entirely desirable they have you know i think that there's there's there's uh uh room for debate they may be desirable from one perspective but not from another they may be desirable from the form for uh one moral agent or one person or one group of people for example but not another and um there may be of course i think a key uh element that's connected to this whether or not we achieve what we want and then also have unintended additional consequences or side effects from the use of technology that we don't want and of course this is um herein lies a lot of the the the basis of my own personal um professional work which is around environmental issues so technology is of course reasonably i think blamed
um for a lot of environmental harm but most of that harm is not intentional it's united it is unintended consequences of achieving other goals if we could avoid those unintended consequences almost all of us would would opt to do so there are very few genuine monsters and and horrible folks among among us at least in my experience um so there's something significant in this desirability element um and that connects to a couple of other ideas here i think quite directly and um those are uh the idea of a tool and i'm going to use this sort of synonymously loosely synonymously anyway with a some sort of concept of efficiency maybe effectiveness is better and then along with that some sort of idea of error so here here's how i think of uh the the toll the technology takes i think that this this is is um in a lot of the existing discourse that i see around technology i see the word cost used over and over and over again the technology use of technology has a cost and sometimes that cost can be externalized this is an economics concept of the costs that are not internal to the transaction between or the exchange between two parties but are instead imposed upon um other parties external to that transaction so there could be environmental costs or social costs that are not included in the pricing of a uh of a formal transaction between two parties or two or more parties i think cost is is not sufficient i think it's i think it's too limiting so instead i prefer it to be forever used the idea of toll because it encompasses other important concepts like you know opportunities that are caught the opportunities that are sacrificed so when you pick one transformation maybe that's precluding lots of other things that you could have used that time and energy and effort for and and those are all some sort of maybe they're an opportunity to cost but there's certainly an opportunity that has been foregone um it also includes other important concepts like um uh the the the uh value of of time is something important now versus in the future and which is more important the present or the future um economics has a lot to say about these sorts of things but i don't think it has the the final word necessarily so you may have be familiar with ideas like net present value or discount rates some of this is captured in those ideas but i want to have an expansive very expansive idea a very expansive concept in total here for um for what we really mean with technology and and uh its performance
so efficiency's got to be part of this or effectiveness like are you achieving what you want to achieve um and uh uh what are the what are the impacts or the the the consequences along the way that are unintended these can be again um time is important here is irrelevant here consequences in the present moment and then um consequences that may be deferred they may not occur uh until much later and of course again the environment is something that's informing a lot of my thinking here so a lot of our unintended consequences of utilizing technologies don't become manifest in immediately there's a long time lag there's a delay between um when we incur uh damage to the environment and when that damage manifests itself very clearly um and then the final thing is there's something about error there's dana and i had this uh had a conversation that that that and that this really struck me the idea that maybe there are um maybe there are other scientific disciplines uh that that could that that look at the effectiveness of processes and um how much error is is uh is entailed in those processes and maybe that could inform our thinking about how effective is the technology how is it how effective is a tool how well does it work what would a better tool look like and what would we want to to be measuring we want to be uh try to identify as as the metrics for um how well a tool works so um that's my sort of broad picture of my thinking on this general question but i think if we i think we do need to try to get a little bit of a handle on this um before we can take a you know too much further of a dive into um uh saying we have a a um saying we're trying to scientifically evaluate this phenomenon we have to we have to do a pretty good job of defining what the phenomenon is and if we're talking about technology and technology progress well let's see if we can define that um well with some clarity and um i guess let me before i open this this whole issue up to conversation let me say one more thing which is uh uh in my own experience this is not done in in um most of the literature that i've seen and certainly the non-academic literature around technology technology forecasting um analysis of trends in you know technological improvement all of this stuff is implicit i never see any of this stuff explicitly discussed or let alone you know some serious rigorous attempt made to define these things so um all of this again is to say that uh i don't think we have anything that we can call a science of
this stuff yet um and it seems like to me like at least part of that is because nobody has bothered to do this this uh work um you know to me to get to the bottom of these things um or at least in any serious way um so let's start there and and um maybe have a uh have a bit of an open discussion about about what technological advancement or progress would actually look like what is it what are we actually talking about any thoughts or questions um i i'm just sort of thinking i haven't fully thought this through yet but i wanted to voice it um so we we're talking about um technological improvement versus technological change um i'm wondering if like couldn't could there be maybe this is a contradiction could there be a disruption that was not an improvement um or uh maybe that just means we're like measuring the wrong thing or something like that like a metric of um improvement is wrong um yeah i just worry you know if you define it as improvement and you you have your metric of what it means to be better then you might miss some possibilities um because uh they could they could be improvements under a different metric or they could be um actually not an improvement just a uh maybe something becomes worse but nevertheless there's a change yeah i think that's a that's a i think that's a superb point and and i'm trying to think of and again that it would be great to be able to point to examples where where um a technology came along that that was that that there was some consensus some social consensus around it being a bad thing um and i can we can maybe think of a few of examples like that where where a technology has multiple dimensions along which we might evaluate it and clearly along some of those dimensions it's not an improvement so one thing that leaps to mind is the technology of weaponry so we have made obviously some pretty stunning advances in the last you know 150 years certainly since the industrial revolution in terms of our ability to cause destruction and you know nuclear nuclear weapons being perhaps you know the the well certainly one um dark example of that i suppose chemical weapons biological weapons all of those are pretty darn terrifying and in one narrow metric you know like as a weapon nuclear weapons are you know they're they're vastly more destructive so honest on one metric they are a far more advanced technology than a spear but many metrics they are certainly not an improvement um they're not they're not you know so so i guess it would depend on
the what the there must be some airing of the technology uh of of the the the performance of the technology with the it's the the intended outcomes of its use and that's where we get and i guess to you know this i put this idea of what is desirable um that's where you know i guess we have to think about who who is is looking at the use of the technology the changes that it can that it and impose upon reality and whether or not those are desirable i suppose so somebody who might you know um probably many of us would say well it's you know we don't ever want to use nuclear weapons any any change in in from of the world one state to another that's caused by that technology is not a good it's not a desirable transformation and yet you know maybe there are um some individuals or some small number some some small number of groups whom under some circumstances that would be a desirable change and can i can i query why this why this term desirable even belongs on the board i mean i could imagine a world a configuration of the world in which any given technology could be desirable or undesirable i mean many people would argue population should be much lower and therefore like fixing nitrogen technologies are undesirable so why is that even really a valid part of a theory of disruption i think that i can offer a defense of that i was trying to think well maybe you just maybe you should just go with change and and not have this direction to it um but you know when it comes to predicting the behavior of humans um which is part of you know is going to be like a necessary part it seems of a science of disruption um as it is to any like economic activity it seems like you you should treat the humans as agents um or like that's that's one way of approaching the pro of the problem of predicting behavior is to treat humans as agents with goals or values so you know you could say well any change is possible but that might not give you a lot of predictive power whereas if you start sort of modeling the desires of humans then you might be able to make some predictions based on that yeah i very much agree with that that's what i sort of had in mind but then that's a very different kind of question to the one that is you know are nuclear weapons desirable or not well i think nuclear weapons i you know i'm not an expert on this but it seems like it's not they're not desirable because of the states of the world that they bring about through their use but through their like presence and through not using them
because of the um like the mutually assured destruction kind of like they're as a deterrent so you know if we so okay maybe maybe this is too simplified but you could say if nuclear weapons weren't desirable in that kind of sense or at least in some sense then they wouldn't actually exist because people wouldn't have invested the money in them so they must be doing something otherwise we wouldn't be spending we as in globally so much money on on their development and maintenance and so on yeah but it seems out of scope to me so you could definitely make an argument for a science of disruption treating the adoption of nuclear energy uh within the context of an economy or a worldwide system but i mean there's no way that you could incorporate the dynamics of geopolitics and you know mutually assured destruction into a scientific model of technology adoption nor does it seem really that's not the kind of thing that scientific theories aim to treat at least not ones that are kind of fundamental so i it seems to me it's not too worth getting bogged down in this word right i mean in the sense that there are many interesting disruptions that can be treated even without having much of a value-laden [Music] set of terms maybe i agree that it's not worth getting bogged down in the example of nuclear um weapons but i think it would be nice if we could treat that kind of thing as a technology disruption potentially in weaponry that is it strikes me as as um on the one hand uh we're unlikely to to be able to make a strong case that technology value neutral could be value neutral um uh even in principle let alone in practice i think we can we it it's it's the the distance that one has to travel it's really just a hop skip and a jump right from from um uh from the from um the the the rather arbitrary uh goals of the users of the technology um for which you know nuclear power is one example to the the metrics by which that technology is evaluated and and it's so it's it although values seem like something that probably we can't escape we have to have some sort of bounding or simplifying uh conditions or set of assumptions about conditions that allow us to move forward because these same these same problems plague all of all of the scientific disciplines ultimately right they there's it's very difficult to get away from these i mean even in things like medicine you know it's it's you can get you can get bogged down in the philosophy of you know what how do you define what is and isn't an
improvement in health for example yeah and so and so on at some very basic bedrock level it's extremely difficult to define that um and we have to sort of i think maybe just admit that these are ultimately um value-laden um uh terms that that we're using but i don't think that that can i don't think that that should stop us from making the attempt to have measures and you know and metrics and definitions that that um you know offer some way to operationalize this idea of of a a movement in a direction um and uh so so i i yeah we don't want to get paralyzed by this the question is can we what what simplifying assumptions can we make that allow us to move forward and not get bogged down but that are not going to turn around and torpedo this whole enterprise um because you know there was some fatal flaw that we didn't yeah think about the beginning i i think i'm considering maybe you know this this desirability thing actually maybe comes in later as like an instrumental thing like it's part of one of the models that you might have because it seems um it seems like maybe more fundamentally disruption is about behavior of markets or you know the humans that comprise them and models of behavior is where you bring in desirability because people are going to to make choices um of what technology to use um and things like that um and you could you can bring in desirability there and there are there are long-standing arguments about what models you should have you know whether humans are you know perfectly rational expectation value maximizers or something else that being a particularly um i think problematic model um but it's like a basic one that you could start with um but anyway maybe i guess the point i'm trying to make is maybe this is not a fundamental thing um or you know there's like philosophical questions about like the role of technology in the world but um but i think maybe what you start with is something like just choice people are going to choose technologies based on something you you have like a model of their decision making or something like that and that you know desirability as a concept could come into that model definitely see that making some sense for sure i can also see um where though aggregated preferences um you know the the the the sum of choices uh that that you know groups or populations of people make um manifest at a different level of analysis and then and then then uh perhaps there might have spoken out of church earlier when i said you know maybe cost isn't
the right way to look at it but if prices and and um markets price is not the same as cost but if if if aggregated preferences are expressed in terms of prices that markets hash out and maybe maybe that is a an example of how um you of how the the the analysis can allow um you know uh uh the the the the details and the subtleties behind all of those pr preferences all of that to wash that out as if as if it were noise even though it isn't necessarily noise but to wash it out as if it were noise for the purposes of an analysis at that aggregate level yeah maybe we can do that same thing um uh with the aggregate uh preference to adopt um a a technology and then we can maybe identify traits or characteristics that those that's that that technologies tend to have tend to have had over the course of human history i would argue that they they will tend to perhaps there was some interesting exceptions but they will tend to have characteristics that align fairly closely with some of the criteria that i already put up there how fast work at what scale do they work how precise are they um and to what extent do they have unintended or consequences or or do they in other words to what extent do they uh incur error in their process um compared to you know whatever the the um alleged or uh genuine goals are of the users of those technologies make any sense i think that makes sense so i i was kind of thinking of this as maybe something that you're suggesting is fundamental but i much prefer when you explain it as the fundamental thing is you know the people are making these choices or whatever and we're going to maybe hypothesize um certain properties that technology that you know popular disruptive technologies might have um yeah that's maybe that's the maybe that's that's a great insight i think that's really powerful that maybe we were maybe maybe trying to make it too fundamental in any physical sense is actually putting the curt before the horse that's that's a fascinating way to think about it yeah yeah and then i think you know have you considered um so you mentioned economics in terms of like cost um and you know i know econom economists think of you know these things like you said like uh discounting future uh returns and uh opportunity cost and this kind of thing so you know i think it's possible within economics to have quite a broad conception of cost um but i'm also happy to call that a toll um so if you have you considered using kind of the fundamentals of economics which is the study of
um sort of decision making across humans have you considered using that as like the framework within which to um build this disruption science on top of that or do you really want to start sort of from scratch without without economics i would say i'm not opposed to nesting this as a sub-discipline within economics if that's indeed quite fit um i think this kind of conversation is important to have if we're if we're really at this fun moment if we have this very fun opportunity to to think okay is it worth creating this new sub discipline and if so where should where should where should its academic home be where should its intellectual home be and indeed maybe it should be in economics maybe that is the right uh uh place and the right fundamental lens through which to view these things and i think probably in general as that has been the predominant lens through which most folks have looked at this um through the lenses of business and economics primarily but i didn't i certainly don't want to adopt that without seriously challenging that as an assumption to begin with and and coming to a conscious decision that that is the right uh choice for an academic or intellectual home for this for this sub discipline if it is indeed then that's great um but there do it does feel like there are things about this uh uh idea that oh that that that economics fails to capture or or somehow misses something important about um and again these sort of the the the social impacts the ecological impacts the the the um the things so and i'm coming out this is as an environmental scientist and and you know indeed an environmentalist uh some in terms of my values um but but when i see my fellow environmental scientists and activists and so on um i see them criticizing technology it's precisely for the things that that that economics uh um uh sort of takes a pass on those externalities yeah yeah and and that's and so anyway i mean i was just wanted to make sure that we that that we aren't we aren't um yeah that we are making a a mistake by assuming that that is the right framing and the right language and the right set of preconceptions to bring to this yeah i wanna need something more different yeah i wanna clarify i think i completely agree with what you just said um so i want to clarify that i think what i would would have meant by saying this is you know you can use things from economics and maybe consider this to be a part of economics i think i mean economics like as in the ideals of