Status Quo Fallacy

It’s almost inevitable that if you openly speculate about new technologies that have any impact on society that change the status quo, you’ll be met with a pithy response of ‘Previous technologies didn’t change (Relevant aspect of society), what makes you think this one will?’ It might not always be phrased that way, but it’s certainly a common sentiment that I expect many readers will have heard.

Of course, this pops up most commonly when you’re discussing automation. As an example, if you discuss the displacement of workers in various industry segments and skill levels, you’ll be met with responses ranging from ‘technology opens up more new jobs than it replaces’ to ‘the luddites originally complained about being put out of work too’. Incidentally, for that last example–turns out many luddites WERE put out of work. That’s not to say I agree with them-history bore out that mechanization of industry improved the lot of the working class in Britain tremendously…but wage suppression still hurt in the short term.

One of the easiest ways to model the future is to assume something won’t change. This isn’t accurate, but it’s easy. People like thinking that what they are familiar with will always be around. Sometimes it’s selective–people will isolate one or two issues they have with the current dynamic of society and humanity, and look at how they  might be affected by technology, but assume the context is the same.

More often, they might pick one or two coming technologies and see how they cause a systematic impact, but not take into account momentum of existing social structures and whatever underlying human motivations cause them (unless the technology is one that directly alters the human condition, such as various neuroprosthetics or nootropics). This is particularly common, and problematic, with people whose futurism is driven by a particular political ideology they wish to see come to pass (or not come to pass, depending on if they are seeking utopia or avoiding dystopia).

The pithy way to phrase this belief, what I call the ‘Status Quo Fallacy’, might be the statement that “Quantitative change will not lead to qualitative change”. Can we argue this point? Is it possible to point to any sort of historical popular statements or predictions that stated that quantitative change wouldn’t lead to qualitative change?

Conveniently, yes! Professor Donald Simanek of Lockhaven University of Pennsylvania has conveniently collated a list of some of the best overly negative/pessimistic quotes about the future of science and technology throughout history, as well as a few overly optimistic ones (which we will revisit in a later article).

I strongly advise reading it yourself for some degree of amusement, especially one of the earliest quotes:

I also lay aside all ideas of any new works or engines of war, the invention of which long-ago reached its limit, and in which I see no hope for further improvement…- Sextus Julius Frontinus, governor of Britania, 84 C.E.

Regardless of ancient humor, there are some more relevant quotes. As the topic of this blog concerns science and technology, and as I’d like to avoid stepping into politics and theology, I’ll disregard those quotes. Furthermore, I think the point is best illustrated in a case where a technology had already been demonstrated as achievable and practical, if not quite ready for mass production. The final requirement is that the quote comes from someone with a degree of authority on the topic or at the very least understanding–luckily, nearly all of the quotes fulfill that requirement.

What does that leave us? Erasmus Wilson claimed that the electric light would not surface again after the Paris Exhibition closed. Lord Kelvin, a mathemetician and physicist, claimed that radio had no future outright. The inventor of the vacuum tube, Lee DeForest, said television had no future. Even the head of 20th Century Fox, who had made his fortune on the movie boom, claimed that television would never gain market share. These are all from the telecom industry, as they in many ways are the predecessor of today’s computer and data industries.

What’s the commonality between these? Individuals who knew systems intricately, who helped develop them or had helped develop their predecessor, were blinded by the status quo. When you are living in a system and much of your life revolves around that system, you either don’t want it to change or you can’t let yourself expect that it will change.

Does this still apply today? Absolutely. People have continued to make predictions, especially about computers. But every time they can’t show, quantitatively or qualitatively, why their prediction holds true for the future instead of simply being a hold-over from the past, you have to treat it with immense skepticism.

This is not to say all negative predictions should be ignored, however. Many have completely valid reasons, and should be used to construct a rigorous model of the future.

In further articles in this series, I hope to examine precisely when various failed predictions about technology came true, and see if there is any sort of consistency between when something was getting enough attention to make a bold statement about it, and how long it took to come true. I will also discuss the value of tempering enthusiasm (lowering the ceiling as opposed to raising the floor, so to speak), and being able to differentiate between different types of failures in technological development.

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