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.

One Laptop per Child

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.

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