October 23, 2012

Shift or Escape?

New technologies have often been criticized, and held responsible for many ills. Stakeholders in the fields of economics, science and politics have tried to curb the success of technology, but they failed. They couldn’t anticipate the emergence of major innovations or wouldn’t challenge their own position and ideology.

In the 17 century, thanks to the telescope technology, the Italian scientist Galileo observed mountains on the moon and spots on the sun. Ptolemy’s 15-century-old theory collapses. Both scientific and religious institutions felt threatened by the findings of this new technology. Galileo’s heliocentric vision was censored, and then banned to make his findings public. He was placed on house arrest after he recanted his research. However, he managed to establish the foundations of modern physics.

A century later, a British man, James Hargreaves invented the first machine to spin cotton that enabled one single worker to control eight reels of thread simultaneously. The production increases so much that local competitors destroy the machines. Businesses that own these machines were forced to move into the towns, spearheading the industrial revolution.

Similar things happened during the industrial revolution: the population first rejected railroad transportation. But this transportation means slowly killed the European network of stagecoaches. Steam machines would also break away from the classical mode of knowledge transmission within artisan corporations. Any professional skill was transmitted from father to son and added real social value. As soon as workers internalized the mechanization of labor, they became machine operators.

Are these examples resulting from a passive and outdated attitude, or does innovation come with a power to disrupt the established order? Today, we see that the downloading of tv shows and films is very common, and that the movie industry spends billions of dollars to ban this practice. In the music world, Apple has chosen a very different approach with the development of the iPod-iTunes musical ecosystem. The corporation has quickly transformed a number of hackers into consumers. In the field of radio, Spotify or Last.fm have won the challenge of making profitable the business model that sets no limit to music access.

With the emergence of blogs, numerous news outlets have tried to ban deep linking with their articles. They were stuck with the print model and its business model based on paid advertising, they didn’t like the fact that an Internet user could read one of their pages without having to go through their homepage or other pages. To this day, news media from Belgium, France, and Germany are ridiculously trying to ban or to tax the indexation for their content by Google.

As for Julian Assange, after over 500 days in house arrest, he is now locked in an embassy and tries to avoid his extradition to Sweden. He definitely embarrassed the White House, but he also made enemies among journalists and Pentagon staff. His communication system merges a number of technologies that shake the journalism establishment. The Internet gives him autonomy thanks to crowd funding as well as a means to verify and confirm information thanks to his collaborative community of reporters. This trend towards a more “democratic’ journalism is based on an encryption technique that allows wikileaks sources to remain completely anonymous. When he was awarded the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize, the judges said, “Julian Assange allowed for the publication of the largest number of scoops that any journalist could dream of having in a lifelong career.”

This is not likely to end. British scientist Lee Cronin is working on a protoype, “Chemputer,” that prints on any medicine with a 3D printer of molecules. One could then legitimately ask if the pharmaceutical industry is about to have a Napster moment.

This means that we fundamentally need technology watch and interdisciplinary exchanges. Though our times resemble in many ways the industrial revolution era, our context made of accelerated networks and based on values of openness and transparency changes the game rules. In a society that cultivate remix, assembling and sharing, the future could allow for a space for rein-free freedom and creativity that has never been experienced before.


COVER IMAGE: mashup de David Caspard Friedrich et Imperial Boy

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