Problems of Trickle-Down Technologies and Innovations
Trickle-down technology means major technological advancements in particular demographics can trickle down into a larger demographic group. Such metaphor implicates that technology like river flowing from above — the privileged groups will finally flow into more people’s life sooner or later. For example, innovations in F1 racing cars such as paddle shifters and hybrid powertrains can be used to improve road cars, radiological research developed for atomic bombs are beneficial to nuclear powerplants. The most famous example is Internet, which was initially designed for military purposes in the 1960s. Now everyone lives in the Internet world: You tap your phone for payment onboarding a bus and buy a Christmas gift on Amazon. But is ‘trickle-down’ an appropriate metaphor to describe technology which indicates more people will have access to advanced technology sooner or later? Not necessarily. In fact, diffusion of technology is a complicated issue involving sociological and political factors. I will provide two cases to point out two major problems in trickle-down technology.
Colonize Mars to save humanity?
Firstly, some trickle-down process might not solve the most urgent world problems in a short term. Think about Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, he launched his SpaceX project and intended to ‘safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen’ (Andrew et al., 2017). It is admittable that Elon Musk is making science fiction coming true, the ‘Wow’ moment of rocket launching will inspire children to dream big and learn science. His works contribute to human’s exploration of the space and a number of technologies can be trickled down in the future to different industries such as microchip production and aviation development.
Elon Musk’s plan to begin colonizing Mars by 2022
But is such innovation necessary? The cost of the Mars mission was estimated $10 billion per person by Elon Musk, wishing to reduce the cost to $200,000 and he also claimed that 1 million people can be accommodated on Mars, 0.014 percent of the whole global population. So, a natural question is who can board the ship? Could this innovation be potential toys for Silicon Valley elites only? It is worth noting that there are 62 million millionaires in the world, 1.1 percent of the whole population. It is highly likely that people from the privileged class might have more priority to this Noah’s Ark, as they are able to pay for the incredibly high costs for boarding. Musk’s concept of humanity excludes most living humans on this planet. SpaceX is never about the life of ordinary people; they will not engage in such flights in the short future. Advanced technologies have the trickle-down effect, and they will be beneficial for overall technological progress at some point. But at this point, flight to Mars is a distraction from fundamental and severe problems that human beings face such as poverty, hunger and diseases.
- People around you are thirsty, very thirsty, perhaps even dying of thirst. You have a lot of clean water. What to do? Should you fill a giant cistern until it overflows onto the ground, spilling over, and let the thirsty scramble to lick up the water. (Andrew et al., 2017)
It is arguable that technology and innovation are never designed equally. Most innovations are made by privileged groups for privileged purposes. As Edgerton suggests, there is an overwhelmingly proportion of mid to high social class, male and white among modern innovators. Some groups’ voices and needs can easily be overlooked during innovation process under such circumstances. In 2017, it is surprising to see AI Asilomar panel on superintelligence are all white male, which indicates that certain groups will be highly likely underrepresented in such discussion. I am not criticizing Elon Musk for his SpaceX project as a businessman definitely has free allocation of his money. But it is disappointing to see the richest man in the world would like to ‘safeguard the existence of humanity’ by only enabling certain elites to colonize Mars. Elon Musk did not create the inequality himself, but the consequences of his good wish on saving humanity might exacerbate the inequalities.
AI Asilomar panel on superintelligence 2017
‘One Laptop per Child’ Initiative
Secondly, some intended trickle-down attempts of technology might fail to meet local people’s needs. In 2005, MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte launched an idea that selling low-cost and rugged laptops at $100 to poor elementary school children in developing countries for education purposes. This ‘One Laptop per Child’ (OLPC) initiative was backed by United Nations and aimed to help local students gain access to knowledge and explore the latest technologies via Internet. However, OLPC initiative failed to achieve its original goal to sell 150 million laptops by 2007, only a few hundred thousand laptops were sold by 2009 at $188. Such initiative was commonly seen as a failure by critics and there are various reasons: Insufficient electronic infrastructure and IT support made the program hard to work. Local people did not fully support the program as they feared it can be the forcing ideas from the West to African children. Government was doubtful on its effectiveness as the actual price for a laptop. The failure of this program provides insights into how trickle-down innovation should be conducted. In OLPC Initiatives, there were some alternative technological methods to improve local students’ education but never evaluated. Lack of proper understanding of local people’s real needs before program conduction added to the difficulty. Overall, innovation is never a purely technological issue, it is a complex issue that should involve sociological and political discussions with both local people and conductors.
As a summary, trickle-down process should not be solely determined by the upper stream of the river simply because they work it out first. Due to education, social status and other social factors, they may have no idea of what the lower stream of river really needs and how to deliver the technology at appropriate methods. Such task is beyond the capability of a single group. Local people should engage as indigenous knowledge may not be as advanced as western knowledge, but it is suitable and provides guidance for the local innovation. Local government should engage as alternative low-tech methods might cost less and work more effectively. A classical STS type question should always be asked in such process: Who decides which technologies will be trickled down to which group at what speed and measures for what purpose? After all, trickle down technology and innovation are just simple metaphors, many considerations are simplified even lost in this short expression. An extra careful analysis is needed in all such process.
What solutionists miss.
What is Solutionism and why it is flawed?
The last decade has witnessed dramatic technological progress. Smart technologies have been an irreplaceable part of our life, from iPhone to self-driving cars. A great number of aspects were improved by technology. For example, online courses provide education opportunities for students from all backgrounds, sensors installed in trash bins reduce garbage-collection costs, self-driving cars and algorithm give an outlook of a safer road. This list can be extended on and on.
Solutionism interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.—– Evgeny Morozov
Some believe that technologies can provide solutions to all difficulties and the potential to improve everything. Such ideology is called solutionism, this term was first used by Morozov with its origin from the architecture, referring to an ‘unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions’
Bringing new technological innovation as a solution is not always satisfactory. Moreover, the results brought by new technologies will generate unexpected problems. For example, Introducing the online learning system focuses too much on learning facts, but ignores the training of using such knowledge which is easier to conduct in classroom study. In Neil Postman’s six questions to ask of a technology, measures guided by solutionism often fail to identify the key issues in the problem, as they are complex social events rather than purely technical problem.
- 1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
- 2. Whose problem is it?
- 3. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
- 4. What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
- 5. What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
- 6. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?
ETC as an example
Solutionism fails in many aspects; The following example works to illustrate the invisible standards and infrastructure underlined in the technology innovation. Electronic toll collection (ETC) on highway is a device used for charging vehicles automatically without stopping. This idea was first put up by Nobel Economics Prize winner William Vickrey, and this system has significantly reduced traffic congestions and shown successes in many countries. However, the promotion of this technology in China came across obstacles. ETC was both introduced to China and Japan at the end of last century. But in 2011, usage of ECT was 87% in Japan but 30% in China. Until 2020, the figure increased to 66%. It is not rare to see few cars pass though ETC-only lanes while there is a long queue for manual toll lane.
So, what stays in the way of popularization of ETC in China? Three reasons can be listed out in terms of Neil Postman’s criteria:
- Transformation of payment methods in public
As a must have in some countries, credit cards are not popular in Chinese market. Mainland China did not produce its first credit card until 1985. Majority of Chinese still used cash as their main payment method in 2012, only 40% of retail payment was through cards. The transformation of payment habits is a long process, which further requires the popularization of card machines and raising public awareness of card use.
- Lack of standardized infrastructure
Implementation of ETC was not merely a technical issue, a careful consideration of users and prior requirements was required. Apart from the card problem, different charging standards on ETC in different provinces made the system function less effectively and extra waiting time was even needed. When cross-province journey was made, some technical problems occurred which made the waiting time on ETC lanes longer. Also, the financial policy bonding one car and one card together added to the inconvenience of using ETC as some drivers with multiple cars need to apply for a new credit card to use ETC services.
- Neglection of drivers from different backgrounds
Credit card issue in China was not easy ten years ago, a proof of minimum income or a deposit was needed in some banks, which showed potential bias towards certain group. Research has shown that income and education level had a positive effect on the likelihood of credit card ownership. There are a great number of Chinese truck drivers from low-income families, having a credit card is difficult for such group, let alone using ETC services on highway.
See the invisible
Standardization is an important part in innovation, but not as visible as other social problems such as gender and race. Scientists look into the future, but easily overlook the sociotechnical standards. To use vaccine passports during covid time, a great deal of elderlies cannot have access to public spaces simply because they do not have smart phones. Nordmann (2021) made an insightful claim about living in the current technological world: ‘Sleepwalking through our technological world, we need to be awakened by a luddite experience.’ I am not claiming that innovations are bad, and people should escape from modern technological life to a world without technology at all. Rather, I am claiming when a new technology innovation is brought out, be an epistemological Amish, cautious to adoption of new technology: Be mindful about what is happening in the technology world and the hypes proposed in the seemingly perfect pictures.