The First Law of Technology (#99)

Technological advancement inflates our expectations faster than it can actually meet them.

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First Law, JLP

Melvin Kranzberg was a professor of history at Case Western University from 1952 until 1971. He then transferred to Georgia Tech where he taught from 1972 until 1988.  In 1958 Kranzberg founded the Society for the History of Technology, an organization today that continues to "encourage the study of the development of technology and its relations with society and culture".

Kranzberg's first Law of Technology states:

"Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral"

With this postulate he is calling attention to the impact that technology has on society. Problems occur when seemingly benign technologies are used at scale. To judge a technology is to instead judge the context to which the technology is applied.

For example, the chemical DDT killed many disease carrying insects which lead to higher crop yields (a good thing), yet also destroyed environmental ecosystems and it is extremely harmful to humans and other living creatures (a very bad thing). DDT was banned in the US in 1972, its effect on humans will still be felt for future generations. But in India, DDT reduced death by Malaria dramatically and so they accepted the ecological risks and its use continued. Not accounting for the impact of technology cannot simply be passed off as an iterative process, one who's messy development often serves as justification for taking no responsibility.

Kranzberg's first law should serve as a reminder for us to consider the short-term benefits along with the long-term impacts, weighing utopian hopes against future actualities. "Move fast and break things" is as foolish today as it was when DDT was first synthesized by an Austrian chemist in 1874.

Kranzberg's first law also exposes a paradox: Technological advancement inflates our expectations faster than it can actually meet them.

This is a paradox we use to temper our own statements and a lens by which we evaluate others with their bold, ambitious statements about the future.

The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us. A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by using the Paradox Pairs Index.