Has Tech Destroyed Society? A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due
Ever since the world wide web became widespread and people started talking about internet addiction, there has been debate about whether technology was destroying society as we know it. In 1993, two young Harvard University students, Steven Pinker and Lawrence Lessig, had an interesting wager on this topic: If computers were to become as prevalent in American households as telephones by 2000, then Lawrence Lessig would donate $1000 to the charity of Steven Pinker’s choice; if this didn’t happen, then Steven Pinker would donate $1000 to the charity of Lawrence Lessig’s choice.
How the bet came about
In 1994, computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte predicted that within the following decade, the world would have at least a billion more internet users than it did at the time. He bet his fortune on it. If he was wrong, his friend Warren gave him one million dollars. Recently, we saw that happen and now Warren is giving Nick that check for a total of one million dollars.
Both of these men have been involved in some pretty incredible projects over their careers. For example, Warren Buffet who is famous for being one of if not THE most successful investors in modern history and one of the world’s richest men also happens to own one of America’s largest newspapers – The Buffalo News. Nick Negroponte on the other hand is a founder of OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and he’s been heavily involved with MIT Media Lab since its conception – which could be seen as a sort of think tank within academia.
Negroponte is also known for his books that discuss how technology can better society, specifically Being Digital, and his most recent book which was on Kickstarter – titled On Innovation.
What was predicted in 1993
It would be nice if the bet’s takeaways were as downbeat as their early 1993 scenario. But it is a shame that most of the predictions in that era have been borne out, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Predictions like: An unprecedented flow of information is eroding people’s attention spans, deepening their skepticism about what they read and hear from news sources, and making them more susceptible to falsehoods. The rise of false news on Facebook; Brexit; Trump’s continuing incursion into Western society via social media — are all cases where facts can now be continually disputed or dismissed. Facts themselves no longer hold the weight they once did.
What has happened since then
Is this yet another financial bubble about to burst or is it a sign of a new era for our world? Here’s the background: in 1994, as the Internet was starting to become an integral part of society, there was a public debate between two economists–Robert J. Shiller and George Akerlof–over whether the technology would destroy society. Shiller thought it would, while Akerlof disagreed. They made a bet that in ten years’ time, if there were any major economic disruption due to information technology, then the economist who had lost the bet would buy the winner expensive champagne–1980 Lafite Rothschild.
Where are we now and what do we do now
In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman recounts a wager between two pundits – Nicholas Negroponte and George Gilder. Negroponte predicted the internet would lead to a future of individual prosperity and freedom for everyone, in contrast to Gilder’s dystopian version of computerless communism. The wager was that one of them had to take a shot every time the internet went down for more than half an hour, but this has never happened. George Gilder probably doesn’t have to keep up with his end of the bet anymore, but it’s not because he lost. It’s because we all did.
And what does this mean for our current social upheaval? What does it mean for climate change or inequality or job automation or any other global challenge where we’re about to see things shift faster than ever before? What does it mean when democracy suddenly seems fragile or when we read reports about US intelligence agencies’ potential use of a technique called deepfakes – which makes someone look like they’re saying something they didn’t say, even inventing new words in the process – on American citizens? How do we figure out what matters and how do we know who should solve our problems if technology is already solving so many others? Maybe the question isn’t whether technology has destroyed society: maybe the question is whether society can destroy technology.
Opinion about whether this has happened or not
Some argue that the answer is yes. This is because we have all come to depend on technology and become more disengaged from human contact. With more people on their phones, social media, or playing video games, some might say there is not much else to do. But what about interacting with real people? There are also those who don’t see any change in society at all. Many people still go out and experience the world in person with their friends or family. In my opinion, it has not killed society but it has created a unique effect that has impacted many aspects of our lives which in turn affects society as a whole.
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