Printed: 2020-07-14

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Why We Need Technology Ratchets

Andrew Maynard

2020 Science

March 10, 2010

A lot of things keep me up at night – everything from the trivial (“did I remember to brush my teeth?”) to the to the profound (“does it matter?”). But recently, I’ve been plagued more than usual in the wee small hours by the challenge of developing sustainable and resilient technologies.

Blame it on reading about too many fictional futures where post-apocalyptic dystopias dominate, but I do worry about how to ensure a secure future that depends on highly complex and specialized technologies.

Here’s my problem. Technologies—or rather, the understanding and skills to use specific technologies—can just as easily be lost as gained. Just because we as a global society can do something clever now, doesn’t mean that people 10, 20, 50 years down the line will still be able to do it.

Securing and maintaining technological advances requires effort—take our eyes off the ball, and the technology innovation-equivalent of entropy begins to eat away at progress. And the more dependent we become on complex technologies, the more effort it seems we need to expend to support this dependency.

Which all makes me wonder: Are we are destined to hit a point where our global intellectual capacity is so taken up with maintaining the technological status quo that we will loose the capacity for further technological innovation? Or, even worse, are we heading for a technology innovation impasse that ends up degenerating into an uncertain and unenlightened future?

I have to say, I’m not an optimist here—that is, unless we learn how to build effective technology ratchets.

imageA mechanical ratchet, as everyone knows, is a device that allows movement in one direction only. By comparison, a technology ratchet can be considered as something that allows technology development to move forward, but prevents or inhibits it from moving backward. The idea is to find ways to hold onto ground gained through technology innovation, without having to constantly expend huge amounts of effort in doing so.

This is a significant challenge. Up until the point that we started using our heads and creating our own destiny, the progress of humans—and our evolutionary precursors—was underpinned by a rather robust biological ratchet: evolution.

Evolution is a well-honed ratchet mechanisms that ensures the successes of one generation are passed on to the next though random mutation and natural selection. In effect, progress is hard-wired into an organism’s genetic code, meaning that each subsequent generation is spared the hassle of learning the rules of survival from scratch. But when we humans started to think for ourselves, we left this biological ratchet behind, leaving us dependent on “soft-wired” technologies that each new generation needs to be taught.

Fortunately, we’ve managed to develop some technology ratchets that have made the process of transferring knowledge from one generation to the next a little easier. Skills like making fire, using wheels and growing crops have propagated successfully from generation to generation for thousands of years, so we must be doing something right.

But how effective are these ratchets, and are they up to the task of sustaining technology innovation in the 21st century? The history of technology development has been “lumpy” to say the least—as civilizations have come and gone, technological ground has been lost as well as gained—suggesting that the technology ratchets of the past might be a little creaky, to say the least.

Living in what is probably the most technologically advanced and technology-dependent age of humanity to date, I’m not sure we can rely fully on old and worn technology ratchets—if we are to prevent a precarious technology-dependent society collapsing like a pack of cards at the slightest provocation, we need to proactively develop effective technology ratchets that underpin sustainable and resilient progress.

So, what sort of technology ratchets should we be building? Here are four ideas for starters:

Open-access knowledge-repositories. These used to be called libraries! Whether stored on paper, digitally, or within cultural and social memories, widespread access to resilient and durable knowledge-bases is an important technology ratchet. Where knowledge is privileged, easily corrupted, or temporal, it becomes increasingly hard to ensure its endurance across generations. Ironically, while we now have access to more information than ever before, the resilience and accessibility of the “knowledge” associated within this information is by no means certain.

Skills transfer mechanisms. I was tempted to say “education” here, but what most people consider as education is part of a broader technology ratchet that ensures the skills of one generation are passed on to successive ones. This includes knowledge transfer. But it also includes the ability to use this knowledge. Skills transfer mechanisms will depend on formal education—including “book-learning” and-on-the job training. But they will also depend on learning in less formal situations—skills passed on by parents and peers, or through social interactions. I suspect sustainable technology innovation will require more people to acquire and pass on more skills than ever before in order to succeed—and we are going to have to find new ways to achieve this.

Redundancy. Biology works so well because it has built-in redundancy. The same information is carried by billions of cells, and there are often multiple pathways to achieving the same end. The result is incredible resilience—throw a curveball at biology, and it adjusts and adapts. It’s something that we could learn from in ensuring resilient technology innovation—redundancy as another technology ratchet. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but developing multiple technology approaches to the same end lessens the chances of loosing critical knowledge and skills. The way technology innovation currently works, redundancy often falls by the wayside (think technology monopolies for instance). I suspect we will need to find ways to overcome this in developing resilient and sustainable technology solutions in the future.

Cultural integration of science and technology. How can technologies be sustained in a society where those dependent on the technology haven’t the first idea of how it works—or what to do if it goes wrong? When everything is going okay, the current model is one that works well. But it’s a model with very little resilience—meaning that when things go wrong (as they are sure to do), things quickly degenerate into a mess. The alternative is to embed an understanding and appreciation of technology—and the underlying science—within society itself. Cultural integration of science and technology provides an effective technology ratchet for preventing slippage in the face of new challenges. As well as facilitating the passing-on of knowledge and skills across generations, it disperses understanding throughout society and enables informed decision-making in the face of emerging issues. Unfortunately, many of today’s cultures do not respect science and technology to the degree that is necessary for this technology ratchet to be effective.

Astute readers might spot that these are not new ideas. But framing them in the context of technology ratchets possibly is. And maybe—just maybe—by framing them in this way, new light will be shed on how to use them to underpin sustainable and resilient technological progress.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that all this talk of technology ratchets is the product of chronic insomnia, and I ought to stick to safer ground in the early hours—like teeth, for instance.

But I suspect that there’s mileage in the concept. It seems painfully inefficient to have to support each advance in technology with a sustained and long-term effort to maintain the advance—not to say precarious. Wouldn’t it be better to develop more effective ways for each generation to lay a solid technological foundation for the following generation to build on—one that isn’t high maintenance?

That, to me, sounds like a technology ratchet.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


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