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Technical Ingenuity: Our Social Fabric Needs More Than Wires

Organizational practices and habits forged in decades past are deep into the land of diminishing returns.

The hope that technical solutions will solve the full range of our human problems is persistent, but misplaced. Our contemporary cultures have been deeply shaped by the commercialization of scientific research. Methodical scrutiny of the material world has created an unspoken expectation that applied science will bail us out of our very real matrix of crises through a brilliant and dashing technology, perhaps wearing a fuel cell powered cape.

Our unconscious belief that we can find sufficient technical solutions is a sign of how accustomed we've become to receiving help from that quarter. In a recent New Yorker article, "The Inventor's Dilemma," author David Owen examines how an incurable designer-of-things named Saul Griffith tries to come to terms with the perplexing realization that mesmerizing technical wizardry, though world-changing, leaves worrisome gaps crowded with unruly manifestations of human nature.

Despite having a Ph.D. from MIT, a Macarthur Foundation "Genius" award, and some impressive industrial design achievements, Griffith's impeccable nerd pedigree does not mitigate the human factor in his search for solutions to our pressing problems. After years of experiments, prototypes, and hoped-for miracle solutions, Griffith acknowledges "the inadequacy of addressing complex societal issues with technological ingenuity alone."

Energy has figured heavily in Griffith's blue sky technological hopes, since few urgencies we face are greater. He observes that "the world's most urgent environmental need . . . is not for some miraculous-seeming scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented transformation of human behaviour." The article explains that earlier in his career, Griffith was more confident that our problems, from global warming to energy scarcity, were mostly technical gaps that science and clever engineering could bridge.

Modern culture, along at least one important axis, is driven by endless progress and growth. This is another way that technological hope is expressed. It isn't exactly a rational drive. We aren't sure what the limits of growth look like. We don't know what happens if we aren't endlessly expanding. It is unclear what a world without increasing GDP would look like. There is very little consideration given to what "enough" looks like in economics. Contemporary culture doesn't have a clue about these things.

Alternative energy forms get a significant amount of press. While the idea is attractive, giving up our drug-like carbon addiction will be deeply challenging both technically and socially. Griffiths points out that changing everyone over to electric cars is so resource intensive that sustainability would be impossible. Building, heating, and cooling the buildings we live in can't be sustained. We need to learn how "less" works. We need to live differently. But that isn't exactly a problem suited to a technical solution. "More" seems to align with and affirm technical intervention (and current cultural sensibilities) more easily than "enough" does.

The messy human panorama within which businesses, organizations, and institutions operate requires us to offset techno-hopes with more intensive social innovations. Griffith acknowledges that we face a "challenge that involves wrestling with human nature as well as physics." Such an admission signifies that the "soft" sciences may not be as soft as we have been led to believe. They may lack the mathematical rigour of the hard sciences that underpin modern technology, but we are far enough along the science infatuation curve to recognize how little that has to do with questions of importance.

Our technologies are a means to understand and control the variables in our lives—bacteria, online hackers, drug runners, and our airborne luggage. Thank goodness we have them to serve our needs. They often, however, behave like the brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, initially helping Mickey—but when they prove uncontrollable, becoming a menace.

Writers like Neil Postman have long warned that our technical advances have a social cost, often unintended—they "act back" on us. We are living in a time when our technical advances have outpaced our collective ability to adequately adjust to them, thus over-taxing our social ingenuity—we've got more magic brooms than we know what to do with, but can't seem to control them or the consequences they trigger.

We need to better understand how the tools we created are shaping us. We desperately need to advance our understanding of how effective leadership and management works under these conditions. It is becoming rather clear that organizational practices and habits forged in decades (more likely centuries) past are deep into the land of diminishing returns. We are pushing legacy models harder and harder and getting less and less back.

If we could see the social cost of technological advance clearly, we may make different choices. If, however, we are drawn forward by the lure of technical solutions for our social problems, our current malaise will deepen. We must raise the volume on a counterpoint that is all too quiet all too much of the time.

As Griffith notes, we "can't expect technological innovations to solve difficult social/cultural problems." Indeed. We must therefore prepare to exert considerable energy understanding what it might mean to counterbalance our technical fascination with innovation in the social and cultural dimensions of our lives. Not all of the social fabric that holds us together is woven of wires and circuit boards. We've become experts at figuring out molecules and electrons but are still living in the open-sewer era of institutional and organizational design. While the imbalance remains, we will find that, despite our technical prowess, we are more mired in habit than elevated by wisdom when it comes to culture building.

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Milton Friesen Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen is Program Director, Social Cities for Cardus. ... read more »

Posted in Business, Leadership.

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