CT551--Week 8--Lecture notes

How Does Technology Spread?

Technology does not develop in isolation, says Volti in Ch. 5, The Diffusion of Technology. It profits from, and even requires, cross-fertilization, the blending of separate traditions. This is well demonstrated by what happened when travelers brought China's technologies to Europe. Gunpowder, used for signal rockets and fireworks, quickly enabled cannon and muskets. The compass, paper, printing, the stirrup, and much more quickly found new uses, but Europe did not simply take what it received. It extended it, and much of the secret of European success in dominating the world may lie in its historic willingness to borrow and extend the ideas of others. Some other nations, such as China (which in the fifteenth century destroyed a fleet of ships sent out to explore the world, perhaps for fear of new ideas), were less welcoming of new ideas.

The United States has inherited the European attitude and pursued it with enthusiasm. The nation's growth has depended on the arrival of millions of immigrants, many of whom have brought knowledge with them. The story of Samuel Slater, who learned about textile mills in England and brought that knowledge to Rhode Island, is but one example. From railroads to the space age (the American space program was built by Nazi Germany's rocket engineers after World War II), the story is the same. And we have not been above outright copying, as when canal builders ordered drawings and samples of wheelbarrows from England to copy and--of course!--improve.

We criticize other countries, such as Japan, for doing the same thing with respect to our own inventions. But by looking at how things have developed in Japan, scholars have been able to identify a pattern: This pattern seems to be essential, for you cannot even copy a technology unless you have workers with appropriate skills, industrial capacity, and a knowledge base. If you have those, copying can then push the skills and industry further, to the point where refinement and adaptation become possible. One result of this pattern is that technology rapidly becomes "appropriate" technology, in that it is suited to local needs, materials, and conditions. Simply transplanting technology as is (as in building highways in countries without cars, which American foreign aid has done!) does not have the same result.

Volti notes that developed countries (such as the US) tend to have technologies tailored to save on labor rather than capital. Developing countries tend to have much more labor available than capital, and that labor has little education or technical skill. Their technologies rely on labor. A good example is China's approach in the 1950s to building dams. Where the US would have used bulldozers and trucks, China deployed a horde of peasant workers with baskets and shovels. The method wasn't as fast, but it worked.

The tendency of aid agencies is to ignore this difference and to give modern technology. The developing nation's leaders and elite love this, for it helps to build a nice shiny modern image, but since the nation lacks the skills to maintain or extend the technology, it tends to degrade rapidly. Not surprisingly, some aid workers and client nations have looked for technologies that do not depend on slowly building infrastructure and capability. One such is information technology, which depends mostly on individual knowledge, gained by going to school in America or Europe, or even from easily available books. Hardware can be bought. Programs can be written locally, and this is one of the facts that has driven the rise of outsourcing that has cost the US many jobs, especially in information technology areas.

Businesses adopt new technologies in many of the same ways as nations. Among the factors that affect adoption are: Nations may add the potential for education to enable shortcutting, as with information technology. Examples could be developed with agriculture (a farmer or nation choosing to plant new crop varieties, perhaps even genetically engineered ones), a company shifting from Windows to Linux or from Explorer to Firefox, a business adopting e-commerce, or a school offering courses on-line.

Do efforts to restrict the spread of technology work? China was able to keep new ideas out for centuries, but eventually Europeans were able to introduce their ideas. Japan actually accepted Portuguese gun (matchlock) knowledge and improved on it, but chose to repress the knowledge because it gave too much power in war to peasants. In due time, that policy also failed. The US tried to keep the knowledge of the nuclear bomb to itself, but even though the Soviets had some help from spies, it has been noted with reason that once they knew such bombs were possible, it was only a matter of time before they made one (they had the necessary scientific and technical skills).

In the US, the patent system was originally developed to promote innovation by requiring that inventors reveal the details of their inventions. They were rewarded with a temporary monopoly on use of the invention, but once the monopoly period expired, the knowledge was to be available to all. As with copyrights, the period of patent protection has grown. Is it a stimulus to technological advance or a hindrance? People have argued both ways, but one thing is clear: it can be used as a hindrance. Consider the "stealth patent."

Are there reasons to attempt to stop the spread of technology? After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Towers, the 9/11 Commission studied how the terrorists had operated and issued a number of recommendations. These recommendations called for improved security, meaning increased screening of travelers at airports and borders, better identification systems, and better communication between security agencies. Note the call (Teich, p. 177) for linking improved screening to "the system that provides benefits to foreigners seeking to stay in the United States." Among those benefits must be counted education, and for some time after 2001, the new security measures made it difficult for foreign students to get into the country in the first place, to stay until their educations were completed, and even to get back into the country if they went home on vacation. Students were also barred from studying certain fields deemed potentially useful to terrorists.

The 9/11 Commission called for protecting civil liberties as the government responded to the threat of terrorism, but only in vague terms. Dempsey's 2002 essay says that the government's actions "weaken the role of the judiciary ... relieve the government of the responsibility to focus its investigations on specific suspects ... [and] permit government agencies to cast their nets far wider than ever before." Those of us who have been reading the news since that time might well say that he was understating the problem. Certainly there has been a lack of the "due process, judicial checks and balances, and openness and accountability in government" that he calls for.

And there does not seem to have been any decrease of terrorism globally. Terrorists have access to modern information and other technologies and use them to good effect. Blocking access to university courses in the US does not block access to equivalent courses in other countries, nor to libraries, nor to the books that can be ordered anywhere in the world.

The problem is that technology spreads with the spread of knowledge. A nation can try to prevent the spread of technology by interfering with the spread of knowledge. Reasons may include wanting to keep other countries from developing expertise and industries that can compete, and thus to protect its technological edge and economy. Or perhaps a nation may see some kinds of information as dangerous in the wrong hands. The classic technique for dealing with such information is classification (think of weapon designs labeled "Top Secret"). But in the wake of 9/11 it has become clear that a great deal of knowledge that is not classified can still be used for destructive purposes. Some of that information is in the library or even in basic textbooks. Some is in the results of new research studies, which have long been published in journals open to anyone who can find them in the library (or online).

Should the availability of that information be limited? Methods range from leaving details out of scientific reports so that others cannot repeat experiments (even though this works against the scientific method, which requires that one share details so others can repeat the work) to keeping foreign students and researchers from using the library. Some argue that because the results of much scientific research have the potential to aid terrorists, there is a need to control the publication and distribution of “sensitive but unclassified” information.  Unfortunately, that can include information found in even elementary textbooks.  A chemistry text might not contain an actual recipe for gunpowder, but it does describe many toxic and reactive compounds. An intelligent student could easily figure out how to build a dangerous bomb from nothing more than aluminum foil and acid! A toxicology or microbiology text is full of dangerous info! But how about environmental science? It reveals, among other things, that sewage can make people very sick if it gets into their drinking water. Is that dangerous information? Should it be restricted for fear that someone might add a pint of raw sewage to a punch bowl?

Or should we concentrate on trying to detect evil-doers while they are still plotting, or even just thinking about plotting?  This is the thought behind the push to use information technology to watch what people are saying to each other in email and on sites such as FaceBook, as well as what they are searching for with Google, what books they are ordering, and so on.  The hope is that intense surveillance can protect the public by detecting and stopping terrorists before they commit crimes.  In our Taking Sides readings, Amitai Etzioni argues that such surveillance efforts pose a serious threat to personal privacy.  It should not be done without careful regulation and supervision, which should not be performed by the snoopers themselves (meaning government).  Others, like Stuart Taylor, Jr., insist that protecting public safety is much more important than protecting privacy. 

In Europe, people are talking of the "surveillance society."  In the US, theNational Security Agency has been accused of overstepping legal limitations on its email surveillance program.

Questions for Discussion

1. Can the "copying pattern" described by Volti be applied in education? (Think of teaching art, or laboratory science.)

2. Consider a farmer who is thinking about planting a new crop. How do the "adoption factors" listed in the lecture show in his or her thinking?

3. What do you teach? Do you impart information that could be used to endanger people? Should that information be restricted?

4. Should there be limits on how much of our online activities (email, searching, online purchases, etc.) the government should be allowed to track? Where would you draw the line?